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Herman Abaton 
San Frandsoo, CA 94100 


Sexual Personae 


“Surging with startling ideas... in style, genre, and ideology, the book 
blasts every trend.” 

—New York 

“Paglia makes more outrageous claims in her first 20 pages than most 
academics dare in a lifetime.” 

—Philadelphia Inquirer 

“A fine, disturbing book. It seeks to attack the reader’s emotions as well 
as his/her prejudices. It is very learned. Each sentence jabs like a 

—Anthony Burgess 

“Provocative... a radical reappraisal of the human condition. Her style 
is marked by angry exhilaration, brittle epigrams and acid paradoxes.” 

— The Times Literary Supplement 

“We are in the presence of a brilliant but reckless mind forever taking 
chances... .The author establishes herself as one of the bravest and most 
original critics of our day.... Her book is more interesting than the last 
five books by Derrida, contains more psychological wisdom than the 
complete works of Lacan, tells you better truths about gender than a 
whole library of academic feminism, and is more intriguingly decadent 
than Robert Mapplethorpe.” 


“Sexual Personae is an erotic history of Western literature and visual 
art; written in a style both erotic and aggressive, it’s the sort of criticism 
Sontag prophesied but didn’t produce. Surely the time is right for such a 
book.... It’s witty, pointed, aphoristic, swift and usually attractively 
aware of its own status as hypercivilized artifice_Paglia’s first objec¬ 

tive is provocation: She’s out to seduce or inspire.... At her epigrammatic 
best, [she] relays her pleasure in perception and discovery, relays her 
remarkable energy of mind—splendid and exhilarating... a brilliant 

— The Nation 

Art and Decadence from 
Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson 


Vintage Books 

A Division of Random House, Inc. 
New York 

First Vintage Books Edition, September 1991 
Copyright © 1990 by Yale University 

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copy¬ 
right Conventions. Published in the United States by 
Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and 
distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, 
Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Yale University 
Press, New Haven, in 1990. 

Published with assistance from the foundation established in 
memory of Amasa Stone Mather of the Class of 1907, Yale College. 

The author gratefully acknowledges permission to use the follow¬ 
ing material: “Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art,” by Camille 
Paglia, first appeared (in a somewhat different form) in Western 
Humanities Review, Vol. XLII, No. 1 (Spring 1988). “The Apollo¬ 
nian Androgyne and the Faerie Queene ,” by Camille Paglia (here 
revised), is reprinted with permission from English Literary- 
Renaissance 9.1 (1979), 42—63. “Oscar Wilde and the English 
Epicene,” by Camille Paglia, appeared in a somewhat different 
form in Raritan, Vol. IV, No. 3 (Winter 1985). Poems 656, 1027, 
and 1711, by Emily Dickinson, are reprinted by permission of the 
publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from The Poems of 
Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Cambridge, 

Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright 
1951, © 1955,1979,1983 by The President and Fellows of Harvard 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 
Paglia, Camille, 1947- 

Sexual personae: art and decadence from Nefertiti to 
Emily Dickinson/Camille Paglia. — 1st Vintage Books ed. 
p. cm. 

Reprint. Originally published: New Haven: Yale Univer¬ 
sity Press, 1990. 

Includes index. 

ISBN 0-679-73579-8 (pbk.) 

1. Literature, Modern —19th century—History and crit¬ 
icism. 2. Literature, Modern —History and criticism. 3. 
Decadence (Literary movement) 4. Paganism in literature. 

5. Sex in literature. 6. Paganism in art. 7. Romanticism. 8. 
Sex in art. 9. Arts. I. Title. 

[PN751.P34 1991] 

809' 03 —dc20 91-50024 


Manufactured in the United States of America 

for my grandmothers 
and my aunt 

Vincenza Colapietro 
Alfonsina Paglia 

Lenora Antonelli 


Chapter 1 
Chapter 2 
Chapter 3 
Chapter 4 
Chapter 5 
Chapter 6 
Chapter 7 

Chapter 8 
Chapter 9 
Chapter 10 
Chapter 11 
Chapter 12 
Chapter 13 
Chapter 14 
Chapter 15 
Chapter 16 

Chapter 17 
Chapter 18 
Chapter 19 


List of Illustrations / ix 
Preface / xiii 
Acknowledgments / xiv 
Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art / 1 
The Birth of the Western Eye / 40 
Apollo and Dionysus / 72 
Pagan Beauty / 99 
Renaissance Form: Italian Art / 140 
Spenser and Apollo: The Faerie Queene / 170 
Shakespeare and Dionysus: As You Like It and Antony 
and Cleopatra / 194 

Return of the Great Mother: Rousseau vs. Sade / 230 
Amazons, Mothers, Ghosts: Goethe to Gothic / 248 
Sex Bound and Unbound: Blake / 270 
Marriage to Mother Nature: Wordsworth / 300 
The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire: Coleridge / 317 
Speed and Space: Byron / 347 
Light and Heat: Shelley and Keats / 365 
Cults of Sex and Beauty: Balzac / 389 
Cults of Sex and Beauty: Gautier, Baudelaire, and 
Huysmans / 408 

Romantic Shadows: Emily Bronte / 439 
Romantic Shadows: Swinburne and Pater / 460 
Apollo Daemonized: Decadent Art / 489 




Chapter 20 

Chapter 21 

Chapter 22 
Chapter 23 
Chapter 24 

The Beautiful Boy as Destroyer: Wilde’s The Picture of 
Dorian Gray / 512 

The English Epicene: Wilde’s The Importance of Being 
Earnest I 531 

American Decadents: Poe, Hawthorne, Melville / 572 
American Decadents: Emerson, Whitman, James / 598 
Amherst’s Madame de Sade: Emily Dickinson / 623 
Notes / 675 
Index / 701 


1. Perseus Cutting Off the Head of Medusa. Museo Nazionale, 
Palermo (Alinari/Art Resource). / 48 

2. Venus of Willendorf. Limestone. Museum of Natural History, 
Vienna (Alinari/Art Resource). / 55 

3. Chephren. Green diorite. Egyptian Museum, Cairo (Alinari/Art 
Resource). / 58 

4. Stele of the Overseer of Magazine ofAmon, Nib-Amun , and His 
Wife , Huy. Limestone. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 
Gift of James Douglas, 1890 (90.6.131)./ 63 

5. Cat Goddess with One Gold Earring. Bronze. Metropolitan 
Museum of Art, New York, Purchase 1958, Fund from Various 
Donors. / 65 

6. Nefertiti. Painted limestone with plaster additions. Copy 
(Marburg/Art Resource). / 67 

7. Nefertiti. Painted limestone with plaster additions. State 
Museums, Berlin (Marburg/Art Resource). / 68 

8. Apollo , from the Temple of Zeus, Olympia. Olympia Museum 
(Alinari/Art Resource). / 75 

9. Ephesian Artemis. Marble and bronze. Museo nuovo dei 
Conservatori, Rome (Alinari/Art Resource). / 76 

1 o. Athena Parthenos (Alinari/Art Resource). / 82 

11. Dionysus and Maenads. Glyptothek, Munich. / 90 

12. Kouros. Island marble. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 
Fletcher Fund, 1932 (32.11.1). / 111 

13. The Kritios Boy. Acropolis Museum, Athens (Alison Frantz). / 112 

14. Byzantine Saints. Mosaic. Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily (Alinari/Art 
Resource). / 113 

15. Sandro Botticelli, St. Sebastian. State Museums, Berlin 
(Marburg/Art Resource). / 114 

16. The Benevento Boy. Louvre, Paris (Marburg/Art Resource). / 119 




1 7. Antinous. Museo Nazionale, Naples (Alinari/Art Resource). / 120 

18. Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa. Loggia dei 
Lanzi, Florence (Alinari/Art Resource). / 145 

19. Donatello, David. Bargello, Florence (Alinari/Art Resource). / 147 

20. Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus. Uffizi, Florence (Alinari/Art 
Resource). / 151 

21. Sandro Botticelli, Primavera. Uffizi, Florence (Alinari/Art 
Resource). / 152 

22. Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa. Louvre, Paris (Alinari/Art 
Resource). / 154 

25. Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin and Child with St. Anne. Louvre, Paris 
(Alinari/Art Resource). / 155 

24. Michelangelo, Cumaean Sibyl . Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome 
(Alinari/Art Resource)./ 161 

25. Michelangelo, Night. Medici Chapel, Church of San Lorenzo, 
Florence (Alinari/Art Resource). / 162 

26. Michelangelo, Giuliano de' Medici. Medici Chapel, Church of 
San Lorenzo, Florence (Alinari/Art Resource). / 164 

27. Michelangelo, Dying Slave. Louvre, Paris (Giraudon/Art 
Resource). / 166 

28. Homogeneous Tilting Armour. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New 
York, The Bashford Dean Memorial Collection, Gift of Helen 
Famestock Hubbard, 1929, in Memory of Her Father, Harris C. 
Farnestock (29.154.1)./ 174 

29. Greek Helmet. Bronze. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 
Rogers Fund, 1919 (19.192.35). / 175 

30. Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars. National Gallery, London (The 
Trustees of the National Gallery of Art, London). / 188 

31. William Blake, God Creating Adam. The Tate Gallery, 

London. / 275 

32. William Blake, Infant Joy ; from Songs of Innocence and of 
Experience. The British Museum, London (Courtesy of the 
Trustees of the British Museum). / 277 

33. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Turkish Bath. Louvre, Paris 
(Cliche des Musees Nationaux, Paris). / 278 



34. Thomas Phillips, Lord Byron. Newstead Abbey, Nottingham City 
Museums. / 360 

35. Elvis Presley in the film Speedway Museum of Modern Art, New 
York/Film Stills Archive. / 361 

36; Eugene Delacroix, Death of Sardartapalus. Louvre, Paris (Cliche 
des Musees Nationaux, Paris). / 398 

37. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Lady Lilith. Delaware Art Museum, 
Wilmington, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial 
Collection. / 492 

38. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca. Manchester City Art 
Galleries. / 494 

39. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Bower Meadow. Manchester City Art 
Galleries. / 495 

40. Sir Edward Burne-Jones, The Briar Wood. Briar Rose Series. 
Buscot Park, The Faringdon Collection Trust (Photograph: 
Courtauld Institute of Art, London). / 498 

41. Sir Edward Burne-Jones, The Doom Fulfilled. Southampton City 
Art Gallery, U.K. / 499 

42. Gustave Moreau, Helen at the Scaean Gate. Musee Gustave 
Moreau, Paris (Cliche des Musees Nationaux, Paris). / 500 

43. Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele. Musee Gustave Moreau, 
Paris (Cliche des Musees Nationaux, Paris). / 502 

44. Franz von Stuck, Sin. Neue Pinakothek, Munich. / 503 

45. Aubrey Beardsley, The Ascension of St. Rose of Lima. / 509 

46. Aubrey Beardsley, Portrait of Himself from The Yellow Book , 
Volume 3. / 510 

47. Aubrey Beardsley, The Climax , from Salome. / 564 


Sexual Personae seeks to demonstrate the unity and con¬ 
tinuity of western culture—something that has inspired little belief 
since the period before World War I. The book accepts the canonical 
western tradition and rejects the modernist idea that culture has col¬ 
lapsed into meaningless fragments. I argue that Judeo-Christianity 
never did defeat paganism, which still flourishes in art, eroticism, as¬ 
trology, and pop culture. 

The first volume of Sexual Personae examines antiquity, the Renais¬ 
sance, and Romanticism from the late eighteenth century to 1900. I 
demonstrate that Romanticism turns almost immediately into Deca¬ 
dence, which I find throughout major nineteenth-century authors, even 
Emily Dickinson. The second volume will show how movies, television, 
sports, and rock music embody all the pagan themes of classical antiq¬ 
uity My approach throughout the book combines disciplines: literature, 
art, history, psychology, and religion. 

What is art? How and why does an artist create? The amorality, ag¬ 
gression, sadism, voyeurism, and pornography in great art have been ig¬ 
nored or glossed over by most academic critics. I fill in the space between 
artist and artwork with metaphors drawn from the Cambridge School of 
Anthropology. My largest ambition is to fuse Frazer with Freud. 

What is sex? What is nature? I see sex and nature as brutal pagan 
forces. My stress on the truth in sexual stereotypes and on the biologic 
basis of sex differences is sure to cause controversy. I reaffirm and 
celebrate woman’s ancient mystery and glamour. I see the mother as an 
overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, 
from which they escape through rationalism and physical achievement. 

I show how much of western life, art, and thought is ruled by per¬ 
sonality, which the book traces through recurrent types or personae 
(“masks”). My title was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s cruel, dreamy 
masterpiece, Persona (1966). My method is a form of sensationalism: I 
try to flesh out intellect with emotion and to induce a wide range of 
emotion from the reader. I want to show meaning arising from simple 
everyday things—cats, grocery stores, bridges, chance encounters— 
and thereby to liberate criticism and interpretation from their imprison¬ 
ment in classroom and library. 



Harold Bloom has been a tremendous source of encour¬ 
agement and practical help throughout this project. I am very grateful 
for his warm hospitality to my ideas. 

Milton Kessler hugely influenced the way I read and teach literature. 
I am grateful for the early support of my work by Geoffrey Hartman, 
Richard Ellmann, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Richard Tristman, and 
Alvin Feinman. 

My parents, Pasquale and Lydia Paglia, and sister Lenora have pro¬ 
vided unflagging spiritual and material support for all my endeavors. 
Thanks to my extended family: Albert and Angelina Mastrogiacomo, 
Bruno and Jane Colapietro, Sister Rita Mastrogiacomo, Wanda Hudak, 
Rico and Jennie DiPietro, and Numa Pompilius. 

Friends who heroically gave of their time and effort to advise me on 
the manuscript are Robert L. Caserio, Bruce Benderson, Heidi Jon 
Schmidt, James Fessenden, and Kent Christensen. Friends who gener¬ 
ously nurtured me over the long haul are Helen Vermeychuk, Eliz¬ 
abeth Davis, Stephen Feld, Ann Jamison, Kristen Lippincott, and Lisa 

I would also like to thank Ronald R. Macdonald, John DeWitt, Car- 
melia Metosh, Kristoffer Jacobson, Gregory Vermeychuk, Rachel Wiz- 
ner, Margaret W. Ferguson, R. D. Skillings, Jeannette LeBlanc, Jeanne 
Bloom, Stephen Jarratt, Linda Ferris, Robert A. Goldstein, Carole C. 
Leher, Cammy Sanes, Frances Fanelli, and Sarah S. Fought. 

I am grateful to Ellen Graham, the sponsoring editor, and Judith 
Calvert, the manuscript editor, for their expert contributions to my 
book. Financial support was received from the Fels Facilities Fund of 
Bennington College, the Faculty Research Project Grants of Phila¬ 
delphia College of the Performing Arts, and the President’s Completion 
Grants of the University of the Arts. Earlier versions of Chapters One, 
Six, and Twenty-One appeared in Western Humanities Review , English 
Literary Renaissance , and Raritan. 


Sexual Personae 

Sex and Violence, or 
Nature and Art 

In the beginning was nature. The background from which 
and against which our ideas of God were formed, nature remains the 
supreme moral problem. We cannot hope to understand sex and gender 
until we clarify our attitude toward nature. Sex is a subset to nature. Sex 
is the natural in man. 

Society is an artificial construction, a defense against nature’s power. 
Without society, we would be storm-tossed on the barbarous sea that is 
nature. Society is a system of inherited forms reducing our humiliating 
passivity to nature. We may alter these forms, slowly or suddenly, but no 
change in society will change nature. Human beings are not nature’s 
favorites. We are merely one of a multitude of species upon which 
nature indiscriminately exerts its force. Nature has a master agenda we 
can only dimly know. 

Human life began in flight and fear. Religion rose from rituals of 
propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements. To this day, commu¬ 
nities are few in regions scorched by heat or shackled by ice. Civilized 
man conceals from himself the extent of his subordination to nature. 
The grandeur of culture, the consolation of religion absorb his attention 
and win his faith. But let nature shrug, and all is in ruin. Fire, flood, 
lightning, tornado, hurricane, volcano, earthquake—anywhere at any 
time. Disaster falls upon the good and bad. Civilized life requires a state 
of illusion. The idea of the ultimate benevolence of nature and God is 
the most potent of man’s survival mechanisms. Without it, culture 
would revert to fear and despair. 

Sexuality and eroticism are the intricate intersection of nature and 
culture. Feminists grossly oversimplify the problem of sex when they 
reduce it to a matter of social convention: readjust society, eliminate 
sexual inequality, purify sex roles, and happiness and harmony will 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

reign. Here feminism, like all liberal movements of the past two hun¬ 
dred years, is heir to Rousseau. The Social Contract { 1762) begins: 
“Man is born free, and eveiywhere he is in chains.” Pitting benign 
Romantic nature against corrupt society, Rousseau produced the pro- 
gressivist strain in nineteenth-century culture, for which social reform 
was the means to achieve paradise on earth. The bubble of these hopes 
was burst by the catastrophes of two world wars. But Rousseauism was 
reborn in the postwar generation of the Sixties, from which contempo¬ 
rary feminism developed. 

Rousseau rejects original sin, Christianity’s pessimistic view of man 
born unclean, with a propensity for evil. Rousseau’s idea, derived from 
Locke, of man’s innate goodness led to social environmentalism, now 
the dominant ethic of American human services, penal codes, and 
behaviorist therapies. It assumes that aggression, violence, and crime 
come from social deprivation—a poor neighborhood, a bad home. Thus 
feminism blames rape on pornography and, by a smug circularity of 
reasoning, interprets outbreaks of sadism as a backlash to itself. But 
rape and sadism have been evident throughout history and, at some 
moment, in all cultures. 

This book takes the point of view of Sade, the most unread major 
writer in western literature. Sade’s work is a comprehensive satiric 
critique of Rousseau, written in the decade after the first failed Rous- 
seauist experiment, the French Revolution, which ended not in political 
paradise but in the hell of the Reign of Terror. Sade follows Hobbes 
rather than Locke. Aggression comes from nature; it is what Nietzsche 
is to call the will-to-power. For Sade, getting back to nature (the Ro¬ 
mantic imperative that still permeates our culture from sex counseling 
to cereal commercials) would be to give free rein to violence and lust. I 
agree. Society is not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in 
check. When social controls weaken, man’s innate cruelty bursts forth. 
The rapist is created not by bad social influences but by a failure of 
social conditioning. Feminists, seeking to drive power relations out of 
sex, have set themselves against nature. Sex is power. Identity is power. 
In western culture, there are no nonexploitative relationships. Everyone 
has killed in order to live. Nature’s universal law of creation from 
destruction operates in mind as in matter. As Freud, Nietzsche’s heir, 
asserts, identity is conflict. Each generation drives its plow over the 
bones of the dead. 

Modem liberalism suffers unresolved contradictions. It exalts indi¬ 
vidualism and freedom and, on its radical wing, condemns social orders 
as oppressive. On the other hand, it expects government to provide 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


materially for all, a feat manageable only by an expansion of authority 
and a swollen bureaucracy. In other words, liberalism defines govern¬ 
ment as tyrant father but demands it behave as nurturant mother. 
Feminism has inherited these contradictions. It sees every hierarchy as 
repressive, a social fiction; every negative about woman is a male lie 
designed to keep her in her place. Feminism has exceeded its proper 
mission of seeking political equality for women and has ended by 
rejecting contingency, that is, human limitation by nature or fate. 

Sexual freedom, sexual liberation. A modem delusion. We are hier¬ 
archical animals. Sweep one hierarchy away, and another will take its 
place, perhaps less palatable than the first. There are hierarchies in 
nature and alternate hierarchies in society. In nature, brute force is the 
law, a survival of the fittest. In society, there are protections for the weak. 
Society is our frail barrier against nature. When the prestige of state and 
religion is low, men are free, but they find freedom intolerable and seek 
new ways to enslave themselves, through drugs or depression. My 
theory is that whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomas¬ 
ochism will not be far behind. Romanticism always turns into deca¬ 
dence. Nature is a hard taskmaster. It is the hammer and the anvil, 
crushing individuality. Perfect freedom would be to die by earth, air, 
water, and fire. 

Sex is a far darker power than feminism has admitted. Behaviorist sex 
therapies believe guiltless, no-fault sex is possible. But sex has always 
been girt round with taboo, irrespective of culture. Sex is the point of 
contact between man and nature, where morality and good intentions 
fall to primitive urges. I called it an intersection. This intersection is the 
uncanny crossroads of Hecate, where all things return in the night. 
Eroticism is a realm stalked by ghosts. It is the place beyond the pale, 
both cursed and enchanted. 

This book shows how much in culture goes against our best wishes. 
Integration of man’s body and mind is a profound problem that is not 
about to be solved by recreational sex or an expansion of women’s civil 
rights. Incarnation, the limitation of mind by matter, is an outrage to 
imagination. Equally outrageous is gender, which we have not chosen 
but which nature has imposed upon us. Our physicality is torment, our 
body the tree of nature on which Blake sees us crucified. 

Sex is daemonic. This term, current in Romantic studies of the past 
twenty-five years, derives from the Greek daimon , meaning a spirit of 
lower divinity than the Olympian gods (hence my pronunciation “dai- 
monic”). The outcast Oedipus becomes a daemon at Colonus. The word 
came to mean a man’s guardian shadow. Christianity turned the dae- 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

monic into the demonic. The Greek daemons were not evil—or rather 
they were both good and evil, like nature itself, in which they dwelled. 
Freud’s unconscious is a daemonic realm. In the day we are social 
creatures, but at night we descend to the dream world where nature 
reigns, where there is no law but sex, cruelty, and metamorphosis. Day 
itself is invaded by daemonic night. Moment by moment, night flickers 
in the imagination, in eroticism, subverting our strivings for virtue and 
order, giving an uncanny aura to objects and persons, revealed to us 
through the eyes of the artist. 

The ghost-ridden character of sex is implicit in Freud’s brilliant 
theory of “family romance.” We each have an incestuous constellation 
of sexual personae that we carry from childhood to the grave and that 
determines whom and how we love or hate. Every encounter with friend 
or foe, every clash with or submission to authority bears the perverse 
traces of family romance. Love is a crowded theater, for as Harold 
Bloom remarks, “We can never embrace (sexually or otherwise) a single 
person, but embrace the whole of her or his family romance.” 1 We still 
know next to nothing of the mystery of cathexis, the investment of libido 
in certain people or things. The element of free will in sex and emotion 
is slight. As poets know, falling in love is irrational. 

Like art, sex is fraught with symbols. Family romance means that 
adult sex is always representation, ritualistic acting out of vanished 
realities. A perfectly humane eroticism may be impossible. Somewhere 
in every family romance is hostility and aggression, the homicidal 
wishes of the unconscious. Children are monsters of unbridled egotism 
and will, for they spring directly from nature, hostile intimations of 
immorality. We carry that daemonic will within us forever. Most people 
conceal it with acquired ethical precepts and meet it only in their 
dreams, which they hastily forget upon waking. The will-to-power is 
innate, but the sexual scripts of family romance are learned. Human 
beings are the only creatures in whom consciousness is so entangled 
with animal instinct. In western culture, there can never be a purely 
physical or anxiety-free sexual encounter. Every attraction, every pat¬ 
tern of touch, every orgasm is shaped by psychic shadows. 

The search for freedom through sex is doomed to failure. In sex, 
compulsion and ancient Necessity rule. The sexual personae of family 
romance are obliterated by the tidal force of regression, the backwards 
movement toward primeval dissolution, which Ferenczi identifies with 
ocean. An orgasm is a domination, a surrender, or a breaking through. 
Nature is no respecter of human identity. This is why so many men turn 
away or flee after sex, for they have sensed the annihilation of the 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

daemonic. Western love is a displacement of cosmic realities. It is a 
defense mechanism rationalizing forces ungovemed and ungovern¬ 
able. Like early religion, it is a device enabling us to control our primal 

Sex cannot be understood because nature cannot be understood. 
Science is a method of logical analysis of nature’s operations. It has 
lessened human anxiety about the cosmos by demonstrating the mate¬ 
riality of nature’s forces, and their frequent predictability. But science is 
always playing catch-up ball. Nature breaks its own rules whenever it 
wants. Science cannot avert a single thunderbolt. Western science is a 
product of the Apollonian mind: its hope is that by naming and classi¬ 
fication, by the cold light of intellect, archaic night can be pushed back 
and defeated. 

Name and person are part of the west’s quest for form. The west 
insists on the discrete identity of objects. To name is to know; to know is 
to control. I will demonstrate that the west’s greatness arises from this 
delusional certitude. Far Eastern culture has never striven against na¬ 
ture in this way. Compliance, not confrontation is its rule. Buddhist 
meditation seeks the unity and harmony of reality. Twentieth-century 
physics, going full circle back to Heracleitus, postulates that all matter 
is in motion. In other words, there is no thing, only energy. But this 
perception has not been imaginatively absorbed, for it cancels the west’s 
intellectual and moral assumptions. 

The westerner knows by seeing. Perceptual relations are at the heart 
of our culture, and they have produced our titanic contributions to art. 
Walking in nature, we see, identify, name, recognize. This recognition is 
our apotropaion, that is, our warding off of fear. Recognition is ritual 
cognition, a repetition-compulsion. We say that nature is beautiful. But 
this aesthetic judgment, which not all peoples have shared, is another 
defense formation, woefully inadequate for encompassing nature’s to¬ 
tality. What is pretty in nature is confined to the thin skin of the globe 
upon which we huddle. Scratch that skin, and nature’s daemonic ugli¬ 
ness will erupt. 

Our focus on the pretty is an Apollonian strategy. The leaves and 
flowers, the birds, the hills are a patchwork pattern by which we map the 
known. What the west represses in its view of nature is the chthonian, 
which means “of the earth”—but earth’s bowels, not its surface. Jane 
Harrison uses the term for pre-Olympian Greek religion, and I adopt it 
as a substitute for Dionysian, which has become contaminated with 
vulgar pleasantries. The Dionysian is no picnic. It is the chthonian 
realities which Apollo evades, the blind grinding of subterranean force, 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

the long slow suck, the murk and ooze. It is the dehumanizing brutality 
of biology and geology, the Darwinian waste and bloodshed, the squalor 
and rot we must block from consciousness to retain our Apollonian 
integrity as persons. Western science and aesthetics are attempts to 
revise this horror into imaginatively palatable form. 

The daemonism of chthonian nature is the west’s dirty secret. Mod¬ 
ern humanists made the “tragic sense of life” the touchstone of mature 
understanding. They defined man’s mortality and the transience of 
time as literature’s supreme subjects. In this I again see evasion and 
even sentimentality. The tragic sense of life is a partial response to 
experience. It is a reflex of the west’s resistance to and misapprehension 
of nature, compounded by the errors of liberalism, which in its Roman¬ 
tic nature-philosophy has followed the Rousseauist Wordsworth rather 
than the daemonic Coleridge. 

Tragedy is the most western literary genre. It did not appear in Japan 
until the late nineteenth century. The western will, setting itself up 
against nature, dramatized its own inevitable fall as a human universal, 
which it is not. An irony of literary history is the birth of tragedy in the 
cult of Dionysus. The protagonist’s destruction recalls the slaughter of 
animals and, even earlier, of real human beings in archaic ritual. It is no 
accident that tragedy as we know it dates from the Apollonian fifth 
century of Athens’ greatness, whose cardinal work is Aeschylus’ Ores - 
teia , a celebration of the defeat of chthonian power. Drama, a Dionysian 
mode, turned against Dionysus in making the passage from ritual to 
mijnesis, that is, from action to representation. Aristotle’s “pity and 
fear” is a broken promise, a plea for vision without horror. 

Few Greek tragedies fully conform to the humanist commentary on 
them. Their barbaric residue will not come unglued. Even in the fifth 
century, as we shall see, a satiric response to Apollonianized theater 
came in Euripides’ decadent plays. Problems in accurate assessment of 
Greek tragedy include not only the loss of three-quarters of the original 
body of work but the lack of survival of any complete satyr-play. This 
was the finale to the classic trilogy, an obscene comic burlesque. In 
Greek tragedy, comedy always had the last word. Modem criticism has 
projected a Victorian and, I feel, Protestant high seriousness upon 
pagan culture that still blankets teaching of the humanities. Paradox¬ 
ically, assent to savage chthonian realities leads not to gloom but to 
humor. Hence Sade’s strange laughter, his wit amid the most fantastic 
cruelties. For life is not a tragedy but a comedy. Comedy is bom of the 
clash between Apollo and Dionysus. Nature is always pulling the mg 
out from under our pompous ideals. 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


Female tragic protagonists are rare. Tragedy is a male paradigm of 
rise and fall, a graph in which dramatic and sexual climax are in 
shadowy analogy. Climax is another western invention. Traditional 
eastern stories are picaresque, horizontal chains of incident. There is 
little suspense or sense of an ending. The sharp vertical peaking of 
western narrative, as later of orchestral music, is exemplified by Sopho¬ 
cles’ Oedipus Rex , whose moment of maximum intensity Aristotle calls 
peripeteia , reversal. Western dramatic climax was produced by the agon 
of male will. Through action to identity. Action is the route of escape 
from nature, but all action circles back to origins, the womb-tomb of 
nature. Oedipus, trying to escape his mother, runs straight into her 
arms. Western narrative is a mystery story, a process of detection. But 
since what is detected is unbearable, every revelation leads to another 

The major women of tragedy—Euripides’ Medea and Phaedra, 
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth, Racine’s Phedre—skew 
the genre by their disruptive relation to male action. Tragic woman is 
less moral than man. Her will-to-power is naked. Her actions are under 
a chthonian cloud. They are a conduit of the irrational, opening the 
genre to intrusions of the barbaric force that drama shut out at its birth. 
Tragedy is a western vehicle for testing and purification of the male will. 
The difficulty in grafting female protagonists onto it is a result not of 
male prejudice but of instinctive sexual strategics. Woman introduces 
untransformed cruelty into tragedy because she is the problem that the 
genre is trying to correct. 

Tragedy plays a male game, a game it invented to snatch victory from 
the jaws of defeat. It is not flawed choice, flawed action, or even death 
itself which is the ultimate human dilemma. The gravest challenge to 
our hopes and dreams is the messy biological business-as-usual that is 
going on within us and without us at every hour of every day. Conscious¬ 
ness is a pitiful hostage of its flesh-envelope, whose surges, circuits, and 
secret murmurings it cannot stay or speed. This is the chthonian drama 
that has no climax but only an endless round, cycle upon cycle. Micro¬ 
cosm mirrors macrocosm. Free will is stillborn in the red cells of our 
body, for there is no free will in nature. Our choices come to us pre¬ 
packaged and special delivery, molded by hands not our own. 

Tragedy’s inhospitality to woman springs from nature’s inhospitality 
to man. The identification of woman with nature was universal in 
prehistory. In hunting or agrarian societies dependent upon nature, 
femaleness was honored as an immanent principle of fertility. As cul¬ 
ture progressed, crafts and commerce supplied a concentration of re- 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

sources freeing men from the caprices of weather or the handicap of 
geography. With nature at one remove, femaleness receded in impor¬ 

Buddhist cultures retained the ancient meanings of femaleness long 
after the west renounced them. Male and female, the Chinese yang and 
yin, are balanced and interpenetrating powers in man and nature, to 
which society is subordinate. This code of passive acceptance has its 
roots in India, a land of sudden extremes where a monsoon can wipe out 
50,000 people overnight. The femaleness of fertility religions is always 
double-edged. The Indian nature-goddess Kali is creator and destroyer, 
granting boons with one set of arms while cutting throats with the other. 
She is the lady ringed with skulls. The moral ambivalence of the great 
mother goddesses has been conveniently forgotten by those American 
feminists who have resurrected them. We cannot grasp nature’s bare 
blade without shedding our own blood. 

Western culture from the start has swerved from femaleness. The last 
major western society to worship female powers was Minoan Crete. 
And significantly, that fell and did not rise again. The immediate cause 
of its collapse—quake, plague, or invasion—is beside the point. The 
lesson is that cultic femaleness is no guarantee of cultural strength or 
viability. What did survive, what did vanquish circumstance and stamp 
its mind-set on Europe was Mycenaean warrior culture, descending to 
us through Homer. The male will-to-power: Mycenaeans from the 
south and Dorians from the north would fuse to form Apollonian Ath¬ 
ens, from which came the Greco-Roman line of western history. 

Both the Apollonian and Judeo-Christian traditions are transcenden¬ 
tal. That is, they seek to surmount or transcend nature. Despite Greek 
culture’s contrary Dionysian element, which I will discuss, high classi¬ 
cism was an Apollonian achievement. Judaism, Christianity’s parent 
sect, is the most powerful of protests against nature. The Old Testament 
asserts that a father god made nature and that differentiation into ob¬ 
jects and gender was after the fact of his maleness. Judeo-Christianity, 
like Greek worship of the Olympian gods, is a sky-cult. It is an advanced 
stage in the history of religion, which everywhere began as earth-cult, 
veneration of fruitful nature. 

The evolution from earth-cult to sky-cult shifts woman into the 
nether realm. Her mysterious procreative powers and the resemblance 
of her rounded breasts, belly, and hips to earth’s contours put her at the 
center of early symbolism. She was the model for the Great Mother 
figures who crowded the birth of religion worldwide. But the mother 
cults did not mean social freedom for women. On the contrary; as I will 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


show in a discussion of Hollywood in the sequel to this book, cult- 
objects are prisoners of their own symbolic inflation. Every totem lives 
in taboo. 

Woman was an idol of belly-magic. She seemed to swell and give 
birth by her own law. From the beginning of time, woman has seemed 
an uncanny being. Man honored but feared her. She was the black maw 
that had spat him forth and would devour him anew. Men, bonding 
together, invented culture as a defense against female nature. Sky-cult 
was the most sophisticated step in this process, for its switch of the 
creative locus from earth to sky is a shift from belly-magic to head- 
magic. And from this defensive head-magic has come the spectacular 
glory of male civilization, which has lifted woman with it. The very 
language and logic modem woman uses to assail patriarchal culture 
were the invention of men. 

Hence the sexes are caught in a comedy of historical indebtedness. 
Man, repelled by his debt to a physical mother, created an alternate 
reality, a heterocosm to give him the illusion of freedom. Woman, at first 
content to accept man’s protections but now inflamed with desire for 
her own illusory freedom, invades man’s systems and suppresses her 
indebtedness to him as she steals them. By head-magic she will deny 
there ever was a problem of sex and nature. She has inherited the 
anxiety of influence. 

The identification of woman with nature is the most troubled and 
troubling term in this historical argument. Was it ever true? Can it still 
be true? Most feminist readers will disagree, but I think this identifica¬ 
tion not myth but reality. Ail the genres of philosophy, science, high art, 
athletics, and politics were invented by men. But by the Promethean 
law of conflict and capture, woman has a right to seize what she will and 
to vie with man on his own terms. Yet there is a limit to what she can 
alter in herself and in man’s relation to her. Every human being must 
wrestle with nature. But nature’s burden falls more heavily on one sex. 
With luck, this will not limit woman’s achievement, that is, her action in 
male-created social space. But it must limit eroticism, that is, our 
imaginative lives in sexual space, which may overlap social space but is 
not identical with it. 

Nature’s cycles are woman’s cycles. Biologic femaleness is a sequence 
of circular returns, beginning and ending at the same point. Woman’s 
centrality gives her a stability of identity. She does not have to become 
but only to be. Her centrality is a great obstacle to man, whose quest for 
identity she blocks. He must transform himself into an independent 
being, that is, a being free of her. If he does not, he will simply fall back 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

into her. Reunion with the mother is a siren call haunting our imagina¬ 
tion. Once there was bliss, and now there is struggle. Dim memories of 
life before the traumatic separation of birth may be the source of 
Arcadian fantasies of a lost golden age. The western idea of history as a 
propulsive movement into the future, a progressive or Providential 
design climaxing in the revelation of a Second Coming, is a male 
formulation. No woman, I submit, could have coined such an idea, 
since it is a strategy of evasion of woman’s own cyclic nature, in which 
man dreads being caught. Evolutionary or apocalyptic history is a male 
wish list with a happy ending, a phallic peak. 

Woman does not dream of transcendental or historical escape from 
natural cycle, since she is that cycle. Her sexual maturity means mar¬ 
riage to the moon, waxing and waning in lunar phases. Moon, month, 
menses: same word, same world. The ancients knew that woman is 
bound to nature’s calendar, an appointment she cannot refuse. The 
Greek pattern of free will to hybris to tragedy is a male drama, since 
woman has never been deluded (until recently) by the mirage of free 
will. She knows there is no free will, since she is not free. She has no 
choice but acceptance. Whether she desires motherhood or not, nature 
yokes her into the brute inflexible rhythm of procreative law. Menstrual 
cycle is an alarming clock that cannot be stopped until nature wills it. 

Woman’s reproductive apparatus is vastly more complicated than 
man’s, and still ill-understood. All kinds of things can go wrong or 
cause distress in going right. Western woman is in an agonistic relation 
to her own body: for her, biologic normalcy is suffering, and health an 
illness. Dysmenorrhea, it is argued, is a disease of civilization, since 
women in tribal cultures have few menstrual complaints. But in tribal 
life, woman has an extended or collective identity; tribal religion honors 
nature and subordinates itself to it. It is precisely in advanced western 
society which attempts to improve or surpass nature and which holds 
up individualism and self-realization as a model, that the stark facts of 
woman’s condition emerge with painful clarity. The more woman aims 
for personal identity and autonomy, the more she develops her imagina¬ 
tion, the fiercer will be her struggle with nature—that is, with the 
intractable physical laws of her own body. And the more nature will 
punish her: do not dare to be free! for your body does not belong to you. 

The female body is a chthonian machine, indifferent to the spirit who 
inhabits it. Organically, it has one mission, pregnancy, which we may 
spend a lifetime staving off. Nature cares only for species, never individ¬ 
uals: the humiliating dimensions of this biologic fact are most directly 
experienced by women, who probably have a greater realism and wis- 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


dom than men because of it. Woman’s body is a sea acted upon by the 
month’s lunar wave-motion. Sluggish and dormant, her fatty tissues are 
gorged with water, then suddenly cleansed at hormonal high tide. 
Edema is our mammalian relapse into the vegetable. Pregnancy dem¬ 
onstrates the deterministic character of woman’s sexuality. Every preg¬ 
nant woman has body and self taken over by a chthonian force beyond 
her control. In the welcome pregnancy, this is a happy sacrifice. But in 
the unwanted one, initiated by rape or misadventure, it is a horror. Such 
unfortunate women look directly into nature’s heart of darkness. For a 
fetus is a benign tumor, a vampire who steals in order to live. The so- 
called miracle of birth is nature getting her own way. 

Every month for women is a new defeat of the will. Menstruation was 
once called “the curse,” a reference to the expulsion from the Garden, 
when woman was condemned to labor pains because of Eve’s sin. Most 
early cultures hemmed in menstruating women by ritual taboos. Ortho¬ 
dox Jewish women still purify themselves from menstrual uncleanness 
in the mikveh , a ritual bath. Women have borne the symbolic burden of 
man’s imperfections, his grounding in nature. Menstrual blood is the 
stain, the birthmark of original sin, the filth that transcendental religion 
must wash from man. Is this identification merely phobic, merely mis- 
ogynistic? Or is it possible there is something uncanny about menstrual 
blood, justifying its attachment to taboo? I will argue that it is not 
menstrual blood per se which disturbs the imagination—unstanchable 
as that red flood may be—but rather the albumen in the blood, the 
uterine shreds, placental jellyfish of the female sea. This is the chtho¬ 
nian matrix from which we rose. We have an evolutionary revulsion 
from slime, our site of biologic origins. Every month, it is woman’s fate 
to face the abyss of time and being, the abyss which is herself. 

The Bible has come under fire for making woman the fall guy in 
man’s cosmic drama. But in casting a male conspirator, the serpent, 
as God’s enemy, Genesis hedges and does not take its misogyny far 
enough. The Bible defensively swerves from God’s true opponent, 
chthonian nature. The serpent is not outside Eve but in her. She is the 
garden and the serpent. Anthony Storr says of witches, “At a very 
primitive level, all mothers are phallic.” 2 The Devil is a woman. Modem 
emancipation movements, discarding stereotypes impeding woman’s 
social advance, refuse to acknowledge procreation’s daemonism. Na¬ 
ture is serpentine, a bed of tangled vines, creepers and crawlers, probing 
dumb fingers of fetid organic life which Wordsworth taught us to call 
pretty. Biologists speak of man’s reptilian brain, the oldest part of our 
upper nervous system, killer survivor of the archaic era. I contend that 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

the premenstrual woman incited to snappishness or rage is hearing 
signals from the reptilian brain. In her, man’s latent perversity is man¬ 
ifest. All hell breaks loose, the hell of chthonian nature that modem 
humanism denies and represses. In every premenstrual woman strug¬ 
gling to govern her temper, sky-cult wars again with earth-cult. 

Mythology’s identification of woman with nature is correct. The male 
contribution to procreation is momentary and transient. Conception is a 
pinpoint of time, another of our phallic peaks of action, from which the 
male slides back uselessly. The pregnant woman is daemonically, devil¬ 
ishly complete. As an ontological entity, she needs nothing and no one. I 
shall maintain that the pregnant woman, brooding for nine months 
upon her own creation, is the pattern of all solipsism, that the historical 
attribution of narcissism to women is another true myth. Male bonding 
and patriarchy were the recourse to which man was forced by his 
terrible sense of woman’s power, her imperviousness, her archetypal 
confederacy with chthonian nature. Woman’s body is a labyrinth in 
which man is lost. It is a walled garden, the medieval hortus conclusus, 
in which nature works its daemonic sorcery. Woman is the primeval fab¬ 
ricator, the real First Mover. She turns a gob of refuse into a spreading 
web of sentient being, floating on the snaky umbilical by which she 
leashes every man. 

Feminism has been simplistic in arguing that female archetypes were 
politically motivated falsehoods by men. The historical repugnance to 
woman has a rational basis: disgust is reason’s proper response to the 
grossness of procreative nature. Reason and logic are the anxiety- 
inspired domain of Apollo, premiere god of sky-cult. The Apollonian is 
harsh and phobic, coldly cutting itself off from nature by its superhu¬ 
man purity. I shall argue that western personality and western achieve¬ 
ment are, for better or worse, largely Apollonian. Apollo’s great op¬ 
ponent Dionysus is ruler of the chthonian whose law is procreative 
femaleness. As we shall see, the Dionysian is liquid nature, a miasmic 
swamp whose prototype is the still pond of the womb. 

We must ask whether the equivalence of male and female in Far 
Eastern symbolism was as culturally efficacious as the hierarchization 
of male over female has been in the west. Which system has ultimately 
benefited women more? Western science and industry have freed wom¬ 
en from drudgery and danger. Machines do housework. The pill neu¬ 
tralizes fertility. Giving birth is no longer fatal. And the Apollonian line 
of western rationality has produced the modem aggressive woman who 
can think like a man and write obnoxious books. The tension and 
antagonism in western metaphysics developed human higher cortical 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


powers to great heights. Most of western culture is a distortion of reality. 
But reality should be distorted; that is, imaginatively amended. The 
Buddhist acquiescence to nature is neither accurate about nature nor 
just to human potential. The Apollonian has taken us to the stars. 

Daemonic archetypes of woman, filling world mythology, represent 
the uncontrollable nearness of nature. Their tradition passes nearly 
unbroken from prehistoric idols through literature and art to modem 
movies. The primary image is the femme fatale, the woman fatal to 
man. The more nature is beaten back in the west, the more the femme 
fatale reappears, as a return of the repressed. She is the spectre of the 
west’s bad conscience about nature. She is the moral ambiguity of 
nature, a malevolent moon that keeps breaking through our fog of 
hopeful sentiment. 

Feminism dismisses the femme fatale as a cartoon and libel. If she 
ever existed, she was simply a victim of society, resorting to destructive 
womanly wiles because of her lack of access to political power. The 
femme fatale was a career woman manquee , her energies neurotically 
diverted into the boudoir. By such techniques of demystification, femi¬ 
nism has painted itself into a comer. Sexuality is a murky realm of 
contradiction and ambivalence. It cannot always be understood by 
social models, which feminism, as an heir of nineteenth-centuiy utili¬ 
tarianism, insists on imposing on it. Mystification will always remain 
the disorderly companion of love and art. Eroticism is mystique; that is, 
the aura of emotion and imagination around sex. It cannot be “fixed” by 
codes of social or moral convenience, whether from the political left or 
right. For nature’s fascism is greater than that of any society. There is a 
daemonic instability in sexual relations that we may have to accept. 

The femme fatale is one of the most mesmerizing of sexual personae. 
She is not a fiction but an extrapolation of biologic realities in women 
that remain constant. The North American Indian myth of the toothed 
vagina {vagina dentata) is a gruesomely direct transcription of female 
power and male fear. Metaphorically, every vagina has secret teeth, for 
the male exits as less than when he entered. The basic mechanics of 
conception require action in the male but nothing more than passive 
receptivity in the female. Sex as a natural rather than social transaction, 
therefore, really is a kind of drain of male energy by female fullness. 
Physical and spiritual castration is the danger every man runs in inter¬ 
course with a woman. Love is the spell by which he puts his sexual fear 
to sleep. Woman’s latent vampirism is not a social aberration but a 
development of her maternal function, for which nature has equipped 
her with tiresome thoroughness. For the male, every act of intercourse is 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


a return to the mother and a capitulation to her. For men, sex is a 
struggle for identity. In sex, the male is consumed and released again by 
the toothed power that bore him, the female dragon of nature. 

The femme fatale was produced by the mystique of connection be¬ 
tween mother and child. A modem assumption is that sex and procre¬ 
ation are medically, scientifically, intellectually “manageable.” If we 
keep tinkering with the social mechanism long enough, every difficulty 
will disappear. Meanwhile, the divorce rate soars. Conventional mar¬ 
riage, despite its inequities, kept the chaos of libido in check. When the 
prestige of marriage is low, all the nasty daemonism of sexual instinct 
pops out. Individualism, the self unconstrained by society, leads to the 
coarser servitude of constraint by nature. Every road from Rousseau 
leads to Sade. The mystique of our birth from human mothers is one of 
the daemonic clouds we cannot dispel by tiny declarations of indepen¬ 
dence. Apollo can swerve from nature, but he cannot obliterate it. As 
emotional and sexual beings we go full circle. Old age is a second 
childhood in which earliest memories revive. Chillingly, comatose pa¬ 
tients of any age automatically drift toward the fetal position, from 
which they have to be pried by nurses. We are tied to our birth by 
unshakable apparitions of sense-memory. 

Rousseauist psychologies like feminism assert the ultimate benev¬ 
olence of human emotion. In such a system, the femme fatale logically 
has no place. I follow Freud, Nietzsche, and Sade in my view of the 
amorality of the instinctual life. At some level, all love is combat, a 
wrestling with ghosts. We are only for something by being against 
something else. People who believe they are having pleasant, casual, 
uncomplex sexual encounters, whether with friend, spouse, or stranger, 
are blocking from consciousness the tangle of psycho dynamics at work, 
just as they block the hostile clashings of their dream life. Family 
romance operates at all times. The femme fatale is one of the refine¬ 
ments of female narcissism, of the ambivalent self-directedness that is 
completed by the birth of a child or by the conversion of spouse or lover 
into child. 

Mothers can be fatal to their sons. It is against the mother that men 
have erected their towering edifice of politics and sky-cult. She is Me¬ 
dusa, in whom Freud sees the castrating and castrated female pubes. 
But Medusa’s snaky hair is also the writhing vegetable growth of nature. 
Her hideous grimace is men’s fear of the laughter of women. She that 
gives life also blocks the way to freedom. Therefore I agree with Sade 
that we have the right to thwart nature’s procreative compulsions, 
through sodomy or abortion. Male homosexuality may be the most 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


valorous of attempts to evade the femme fatale and to defeat nature. By 
turning away from the Medusan mother, whether in honor or detesta¬ 
tion of her, the male homosexual is one of the great forgers of absolutist 
western identity. But of course nature has won, as she always does, by 
making disease the price of promiscuous sex. 

The permanence of the femme fatale as a sexual persona is part of the 
weary weight of eroticism, beneath which both ethics and religion 
founder. Eroticism is society’s soft point, through which it is invaded by 
chthonian nature. The femme fatale can appear as Medusan mother or 
as frigid nymph, masquing in the brilliant luminosity of Apollonian 
high glamour. Her cool unreachability beckons, fascinates, and de¬ 
stroys. She is not a neurotic but, if anything, a psychopath. That is, she 
has an amoral affectlessness, a serene indifference to the suffering of 
others, which she invites and dispassionately observes as tests of her 
power. The mystique of the femme fatale cannot be perfectly translated 
into male terms. I will speak at length of the beautiful boy, one of the 
west’s most stunning sexual personae. However, the danger of the 
homme fatal , as embodied in today’s boyish male hustler, is that he will 
leave, disappearing to other loves, other lands. He is a rambler, a 
cowboy and sailor. But the danger of the femme fatale is that she will 
stay ; still, placid, and paralyzing. Her remaining is a daemonic burden, 
the ubiquity of Walter Pater’s Mona Lisa , who smothers history. She is a 
thorny symbol of the perversity of sex. She will stick. 

We are moving in this chapter toward a theory of beauty. I believe that 
the aesthetic sense, like everything else thus far, is a swerve from the 
chthonian. It is a displacement from one area of reality to another, 
analogous to the shift from earth-cult to sky-cult. Ferenczi speaks of the 
replacement of animal nose by human eye, because of our upright 
stance. The eye is peremptory in its judgments. It decides what to see 
and why. Each of our glances is as much exclusion as inclusion. We 
select, editorialize, and enhance. Our idea of the pretty is a limited 
notion that cannot possibly apply to earth’s metamorphic underworld, a 
cataclysmic realm of chthonian violence. We choose not to see this 
violence on our daily strolls. Every time we say nature is beautiful, we 
are saying a prayer, fingering our worry beads. 

The cool beauty of the femme fatale is another transformation of 
chthonian ugliness. Female animals are usually less beautiful than 
males. The mother bird’s dull feathers are camouflage, protecting the 
nest from predators. Male birds are creatures of spectacular display, of 
both plumage and parade, partly to impress females and conquer rivals 
and partly to divert enemies from the nest. Among humans, male ritual 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

display is just as extreme, but for the first time the female becomes a 
lavishly beautiful object. Why? The female is adorned not simply to 
increase her property value, as Marxism would demystifyingly have it, 
but to assure her desirability. Consciousness has made cowards of us all. 
Animals do not feel sexual fear, because they are not rational beings. 
They operate under a pure biologic imperative. Mind, which has en¬ 
abled humanity to adapt and flourish as a species, has also infinitely 
complicated our functioning as physical beings. We see too much, and 
so have to stringently limit our seeing. Desire is besieged on all sides by 
anxiety and doubt. Beauty, an ecstasy of the eye, drugs us and allows us 
to act. Beauty is our Apollonian revision of the chthonian. 

Nature is a Darwinian spectacle of the eaters and the eaten. All 
phases of procreation are ruled by appetite: sexual intercourse, from 
kissing to penetration, consists of movements of barely controlled cru¬ 
elty and consumption. The long pregnancy of the human female and 
the protracted childhood of her infant, who is not self-sustaining for 
seven years or more, have produced the agon of psychological depen¬ 
dency that burdens the male for a lifetime. Man justifiably fears being 
devoured by woman, who is nature’s proxy. 

Repression is an evolutionary adaptation permitting us to function 
under the burden of our expanded consciousness. For what we are 
conscious of could drive us mad. Crude male slang speaks of female 
genitalia as “slash” or “gash.” Freud notes that Medusa turns men to 
stone because, at first sight, a boy thinks female genitals a wound, from 
which the penis has been cut. They are indeed a wound, but it is the 
infant who has been cut away, by violence: the umbilical is a hawser 
sawed through by a social rescue party. Sexual necessity drives man 
back to that bloody scene, but he cannot approach it without tremors of 
apprehension. These he conceals by euphemisms of love and beauty. 
However, the less well-bred he is—that is, the less socialized—the 
sharper his sense of the animality of sex and the grosser his language. 
The foulmouthed roughneck is produced not by society’s sexism but by 
society’s absence. For nature is the most foulmouthed of us all. 

Woman’s current advance in society is not a voyage from myth to 
truth but from myth to new myth. The rise of rational, technological 
woman may demand the repression of unpleasant archetypal realities. 
Ferenczi remarks, “The periodic pulsations in feminine sexuality (pu¬ 
berty, the menses, pregnancies and parturitions, the climacterium) re¬ 
quire a much more powerful repression on the woman’s part than is 
necessary for the man.” 3 In its argument with male society, feminism 
must suppress the monthly evidence of woman’s domination by chtho- 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


nian nature. Menstruation and childbirth are an affront to beauty and 
form. In aesthetic terms, they are spectacles of frightful squalor. Mod¬ 
ern life, with its hospitals and paper products, has distanced and sani¬ 
tized these primitive mysteries, just as it has done with death, which 
used to be a gruelling at-home affair. An awful lot is being swept under 
the rug: the awe and terror that is our lot. 

The woundlike rawness of female genitals is a symbol of the unre- 
deemability of chthonian nature. In aesthetic terms, female genitals are 
lurid in color, vagrant in contour, and architecturally incoherent. Male 
genitals, on the other hand, though they risk ludicrousness by their 
rubbery indecisiveness (a Sylvia Plath heroine memorably thinks of 
“turkey neck and turkey gizzards”), have a rational mathematical de¬ 
sign, a syntax. This is no absolute virtue, however, since it may tend to 
confirm the male in his abundant misperceptions of reality. Aesthetics 
stop where sex begins. G. Wilson Knight declares, “All physical love is, 
in its way, a victory over physical secrecies and physical repulsions.” 4 
Sex is sloppy and untidy, a return to what Freud calls the infant’s 
polymorphous perversity, a zestful rolling around in every body fluid. St. 
Augustine says, “We are born between feces and urine.” This mis- 
ogynistic view of the infant’s sin-stained emergence from the birth 
canal is close to the chthonian truth. But excretion, through which 
nature for once acts upon the sexes equally, can be saved by comedy, as 
we see in Aristophanes, Rabelais, Pope, and Joyce. Excretion has found 
a place in high culture. Menstruation and childbirth are too barbaric for 
comedy. Their ugliness has produced the giant displacement of wom¬ 
en’s historical status as sex object, whose beauty is endlessly discussed 
and modified. Woman’s beauty is a compromise with her dangerous 
archetypal allure. It gives the eye the comforting illusion of intellectual 
control over nature. 

My explanation for the male domination of art, science, 
and politics, an indisputable fact of history, is based on an analogy 
between sexual physiology and aesthetics. I will argue that all cultural 
achievement is a projection, a swerve into Apollonian transcendance, 
and that men are anatomically destined to be projectors. But as with 
Oedipus, destiny may be a curse. 

How ‘we know the world and how it knows us are underlain by 
shadow patterns of sexual biography and sexual geography. What 
breaks into consciousness is shaped in advance by the daemonism of 
the senses. Mind is a captive of the body. Perfect objectivity does not 
exist. Every thought bears some emotional burden. Had we time or 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

energy to pursue it, each random choice, from the color of a toothbrush 
to a decision over a menu, could be made to yield its secret meaning in 
the inner drama of our lives. But in exhaustion, we shut out this psychic 
supersaturation. The realm of number, the crystalline mathematic of 
Apollonian purity, was invented early on by western man as a refuge 
from the soggy emotionalism and bristling disorder of woman and 
nature. Women who excel in mathematics do so in a system devised by 
men for the mastery of nature. Number is the most imposing and least 
creaturely of pacifiers, man’s yearning hope for objectivity. It is to 
number that he—and now she—withdraws to escape from the chtho- 
nian mire of love, hate, and family romance. 

Even now, it is usually men rather than women who claim logic’s 
superiority to emotion. This they comically tend to do at moments of 
maximum emotional chaos, which they may have incited and are help¬ 
less to stem. Male artists and actors have a cultural function in keeping 
the line of emotion open from the female to male realms. Every man 
harbors an inner female territory ruled by his mother, from whom he 
can never entirely break free. Since Romanticism, art and the study of 
art have become vehicles for exploring the west’s repressed emotional 
life, though one would never know it from half the deadening scholar¬ 
ship that has sprung up around them. Poetry is the connecting link 
between body and mind. Every idea in poetry is grounded in emotion. 
Every word is a palpation of the body. The multiplicity of interpretation 
surrounding a poem mirrors the stormy uncontrollability of emotion, 
where nature works her will. Emotion is chaos. Every benign emotion 
has a flip side of negativity. Thus the flight from emotion to number is 
another crucial strategy of the Apollonian west in its long struggle with 

Emotion is passion, a continuum of eroticism and aggression. Love 
and hate are not opposites: there is only more passion and less passion, 
a difference of quantity and not of kind. To live in love and peace is one 
of the outstanding contradictions that Christianity has imposed on its 
followers, an ideal impossible and unnatural. Since Romanticism, art¬ 
ists and intellectuals have complained about the church’s sex rules, but 
these are just one small part of the Christian war with pagan nature. 
Only a saint could sustain the Christian code of love. And saints are 
ruthless in their exclusions: they must shut out an enormous amount of 
reality, the reality of sexual personae and the reality of nature. Love for 
all means coldness to something or someone. Even Jesus, let us recall, 
was unnecessarily rude to his mother at Cana. 

The chthonian superflux of emotion is a male problem. A man must 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


do battle with that enormity, which resides in woman and nature. He 
can attain selfhood only by beating back the daemonic cloud that would 
swallow him up: mother-love, which we may just as well call mother- 
hate. Mother-love, mother-hate, for her or from her, one huge con¬ 
glomerate of natural power. Political equality for women will make very 
little difference in this emotional turmoil that is going on above and 
below politics, outside the scheme of social life. Not until all babies are 
bom from glass jars will the combat cease between mother and son. But 
in a totalitarian future that has removed procreation from woman’s 
hands, there will also be no affect and no art. Men will be machines, 
without pain but also without pleasure. Imagination has a price, which 
we are paying every day. There is no escape from the biologic chains 
that bind us. 

What has nature given man to defend himself against woman? Here 
we come to the source of man’s cultural achievements, which follow so 
directly from his singular anatomy. Our lives as physical beings give rise 
to basic metaphors of apprehension, which vary greatly between the 
sexes. Here there can be no equality. Man is sexually compartmen¬ 
talized. Genitally, he is condemned to a perpetual pattern of linearity, 
focus, aim, directedness. He must leam to aim. Without aim, urination 
and ejaculation end in infantile soiling of self or surroundings. Wom¬ 
an’s eroticism is diffused throughout her body. Her desire for foreplay 
remains a notorious area of miscommunication between the sexes. 
Man’s genital concentration is a reduction but also an intensification. 
He is a victim of unruly ups and downs. Male sexuality is inherently 
manic-depressive. Estrogen tranquilizes, but androgen agitates. Men 
are in a constant state of sexual anxiety, living on the pins and needles of 
their hormones. In sex as in life they are driven beyond —beyond the 
self, beyond the body. Even in the womb this rule applies. Every fetus 
becomes female unless it is steeped in male hormone, produced by a 
signal from the testes. Before birth, therefore, a male is already beyond 
the female. But to be beyond is to be exiled from the center of life. Men 
know they are sexual exiles. They wander the earth seeking satisfaction, 
craving and despising, never content. There is nothing in that an¬ 
guished motion for women to envy. 

The male genital metaphor is concentration and projection. Nature 
gives concentration to man to help him overcome his fear. Man ap¬ 
proaches woman in bursts of spasmodic concentration. This gives him 
the delusion of temporary control of the archetypal mysteries that 
brought him forth. It gives him the courage to return. Sex is metaphys¬ 
ical for men, as it is not for women. Women have no problem to solve by 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

sex. Physically and psychologically, they are serenely self-contained. 
They may choose to achieve, but they do not need it. They are not thrust 
into the beyond by their own fractious bodies. But men are out of 
balance. They must quest, pursue, court, or seize. Pigeons on the grass, 
alas: in such parkside rituals we may savor the comic pathos of sex. How 
often one spots a male pigeon making desperate, self-inflating sallies 
toward the female, as again and again she turns her back on him and 
nonchalantly marches away. But by concentration and insistence he 
may carry the day. Nature has blessed him with obliviousness to his own 
absurdity. His purposiveness is both a gift and a burden. In human 
beings, sexual concentration is the male’s instrument for gathering 
together and forcibly fixing the dangerous chthonian superflux of emo¬ 
tion and energy that I identify with woman and nature. In sex, man is 
driven into the very abyss which he flees. He makes a voyage to nonbe¬ 
ing and back. 

Through concentration to projection into the beyond. The male pro¬ 
jection of erection and ejaculation is the paradigm for all cultural 
projection and conceptualization—from art and philosophy to fantasy, 
hallucination, and obsession. Women have conceptualized less in his¬ 
tory not because men have kept them from doing so but because women 
do not need to conceptualize in order to exist. I leave open the question 
of brain differences. Conceptualization and sexual mania may issue 
from the same part of the male brain. Fetishism, for instance, a practice 
which like most of the sex perversions is confined to men, is clearly a 
conceptualizing or symbol-making activity. Man’s vastly greater com¬ 
mercial patronage of pornography is analogous. 

An erection is a thought and the orgasm an act of imagination. The 
male has to will his sexual authority before the woman who is a shadow 
of his mother and of all women. Failure and humiliation constantly wait 
in the wings. No woman has to prove herself a woman in the grim way a 
man has to prove himself a man. He must perform, or the show does not 
go on. Social convention is irrelevant. A flop is a flop. Ironically, sexual 
success always ends in sagging fortunes anyhow. Eveiy male projection 
is transient and must be anxiously, endlessly renewed. Men enter in 
triumph but withdraw in decrepitude. The sex act cruelly mimics his¬ 
tory’s decline and fall. Male bonding is a self-preservation society, 
collegial reaffirmation through larger, fabricated frames of reference. 
Culture is man’s iron reinforcement of his ever-imperiled private pro¬ 

Concentration and projection are remarkably demonstrated by uri¬ 
nation, one of male anatomy’s most efficient compartmentalizations. 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


Freud thinks primitive man preened himself on his ability to put out a 
fire with a stream of urine. A strange thing to be proud of but certainly 
beyond the scope of woman, who would scorch her hams in the process. 
Male urination really is a kind of accomplishment, an arc of transcen- 
dance. A woman merely waters the ground she stands on. Male urina¬ 
tion is a form of commentary. It can be friendly when shared but is often 
aggressive, as in the defacement of public monuments by Sixties rock 
stars. To piss on is to criticize. John Wayne urinated on the shoes of a 
grouchy director in full view of cast and crew. This is one genre of self- 
expression women will never master. A male dog marking every bush 
on the block is a graffiti artist, leaving his rude signature with each lift of 
the leg. Women, like female dogs, are earthbound squatters. There is no 
projection beyond the boundaries of the self. Space is claimed by being 
sat on, squatter’s rights. 

The cumbersome, solipsistic character of female physiology is te¬ 
diously evident at sports events and rock concerts, where fifty women 
wait in line for admission to the sequestered cells of the toilet. Mean¬ 
while, their male friends zip in and out (in every sense) and stand 
around looking at their watches and rolling their eyes. Freud’s notion of 
penis envy proves too true when the pubcrawling male cheerily relieves 
himself in midnight alleyways, to the vexation of his bursting female 
companions. This compartmentalization or isolation of male genitality 
has its dark side, however. It can lead to a dissociation of sex and 
emotion, to temptation, promiscuity, and disease. The modem male 
homosexual, for example, has sought ecstasy in the squalor of public 
toilets, for women perhaps the least erotic place on earth. 

Man’s metaphors of concentration and projection are echoes of both 
body and mind. Without them, he would be helpless before woman’s 
power. Without them, woman would long ago have absorbed all of 
creation into herself. There would be no culture, no system, no pyra¬ 
miding of one hierarchy upon another. Earth-cult must lose to sky-cult, 
if mind is ever to break free from matter. Ironically, the more modem 
woman thinks with Apollonian clarity, the more she participates in the 
historical negation of her sex. Political equality for women, desirable 
and necessary as it is, is not going to remedy the radical disjunction 
between the sexes that begins and ends in the body. The sexes will 
always be jolted by violent shocks of attraction and repulsion. 

Androgyny, which some feminists promote as a pacifist blueprint for 
sexual utopia, belongs to the contemplative rather than active life. It is 
the ancient prerogative of priests, shamans, and artists. Feminists have 
politicized it as a weapon against the masculine principle. Redefined, it 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

now means men must be like women and women can be whatever they 
like. Androgyny is a cancellation of male concentration and projection. 
Prescriptions for the future by bourgeois academics and writers carry 
their own bias. The reform of a college English department cuts no ice 
down at the corner garage. Male concentration and projection are 
visible everywhere in the aggressive energy of the streets. Fortunately, 
male homosexuals of every social class have preserved the cult of the 
masculine, which will therefore never lose its aesthetic legitimacy. Ma¬ 
jor peaks of western culture have been accompanied by a high inci¬ 
dence of male homosexuality—in classical Athens and Renaissance 
Florence and London. Male concentration and projection are self¬ 
enhancing, leading to supreme achievements of Apollonian conceptu¬ 

If sexual physiology provides the pattern for our experience of the 
world, what is woman’s basic metaphor? It is mystery, the hidden . Karen 
Horney speaks of a girl’s inability to see her genitals and a boy’s ability 
to see his as the source of “the greater subjectivity of women as com¬ 
pared with the greater objectivity of men.” 5 To rephrase this with my 
different emphasis: men’s delusional certitude that objectivity is possi¬ 
ble is based on the visibility of their genitals. Second, this certitude is a 
defensive swerve from the anxiety-inducing invisibility of the womb. 
Women tend to be more realistic and less obsessional because of their 
toleration for ambiguity, which they learn from their inability to learn 
about their own bodies. Women accept limited knowledge as their 
natural condition, a great human truth that a man may take a lifetime to 

The female body’s unbearable hiddenness applies to all aspects of 
men’s dealings with women. What does it look like in there? Did she 
have an orgasm? Is it really my child? Who was my real father? Mystery 
shrouds woman’s sexuality. This mystery is the main reason for the 
imprisonment man has imposed on women. Only by confining his wife 
in a locked harem guarded by eunuchs could he be certain that her son 
was also his. Man’s genital visibility is a source of his scientific desire for 
external testing, validation, proof. By this method he hopes to solve the 
ultimate mystery story, his chthonian birth. Woman is veiled. Violent 
tearing of this veil may be a motive in gang-rapes and rape-murders, 
particularly ritualistic disembowellings of the Jack the Ripper kind. The 
Ripper’s public nailing up of his victim’s uterus is exactly paralleled in 
tribal ritual of South African Bushmen. Sex crimes are always male, 
never female, because such crimes are conceptualizing assaults on the 
unreachable omnipotence of woman and nature. Every woman’s body 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

2 3 

contains a cell of archaic night, where all knowing must stop. This is the 
profound meaning behind striptease, a sacred dance of pagan origins 
which, like prostitution, Christianity has never been able to stamp out. 
Erotic dancing by males cannot be comparable, for a nude woman 
carries off the stage a final concealment, that chthonian darkness from 
which we come. 

Woman’s body is a secret, sacred space. It is a temenos or ritual 
precinct, a Greek word I adopt for the discussion of art. In the marked- 
off space of woman’s body, nature operates at its darkest and most 
mechanical. Every woman is a priestess guarding the temenos of dae¬ 
monic mysteries. Virginity is categorically different for the sexes. A boy 
becoming a man quests for experience. The penis is like eye or hand, an 
extension of self reaching outward. But a girl is a sealed vessel that must 
be broken into by force. The female body is the prototype of all sacred 
spaces from cave shrine to temple and church. The womb is the veiled 
Holy of Holies, a great problem, as we shall see, for sexual polemicists 
like William Blake who seek to abolish guilt and covertness in sex. The 
taboo on woman’s body is the taboo that always hovers over the place of 
magic. Woman is literally the occult, which means “the hidden.” These 
uncanny meanings cannot be changed, only suppressed, until they 
break into cultural consciousness again. Political equality will succeed 
only in political terms. It is helpless against the archetypal. Kill the 
imagination, lobotomize the brain, castrate and operate: then the sexes 
will be the same. Until then, we must live and dream in the daemonic 
turbulence of nature. 

Everything sacred and inviolable provokes profanation and violation. 
Every crime that can be committed will be. Rape is a mode of natural 
aggression that can be controlled only by the social contract. Modem 
ferrfinism’s most naive formulation is its assertion that rape is a crime of 
violence but not of sex, that it is merely power masquerading as sex. But 
sex is power, and all power is inherently aggressive. Rape is male power 
fighting female power. It is no more to be excused than is murder or any 
other assault on another’s civil rights. Society is woman’s protection 
against rape, not, as some feminists absurdly maintain, the cause of 
rape. Rape is the sexual expression of the will-to-power, which nature 
plants in all of us and which civilization rose to contain. Therefore the 
rapist is a man with too little socialization rather than too much. World¬ 
wide evidence is overwhelming that whenever social controls are weak¬ 
ened, as in war or mob rule, even civilized men behave in uncivilized 
ways, among which is the barbarity of rape. 

The latent metaphors of the body guarantee the survival of rape, 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

which is a development in degree of intensity alone of the basic move¬ 
ments of sex. A girl’s loss of virginity is always in some.sense a violation 
of sanctity, an invasion of her integrity and identity. Defloration is 
destruction. But nature creates by violence and destruction. The com¬ 
monest violence in the world is childbirth, with its appalling pain and 
gore. Nature gives males infusions of hormones for dominance in order 
to hurl them against the paralyzing mystery of woman, from whom they 
would otherwise shrink. Her power as mistress of birth is already too 
extreme. Lust and aggression are fused in male hormones. Anyone who 
doubts this has probably never spent much time around horses. Stal¬ 
lions are so dangerous they must be caged in barred stalls; once gelded, 
they are docile enough to serve as children’s mounts. The hormonal 
disparity in humans is not so gross, but it is grosser than Rousseauists 
like to think. The more testosterone, the more elevated the libido. The 
more dominant the male, the more frequent his contributions to the 
genetic pool. Even on the microscopic level, male fertility is a function 
not only of number of sperm but of their motility, that is, their restless 
movement, which increases the chance of conception. Sperm are min¬ 
iature assault troops, and the ovum is a solitary citadel that must be 
breached. Weak or passive sperm just sit there like dead ducks. Nature 
rewards energy and aggression. 

Profanation and violation are part of the perversity of sex, which 
never will conform to liberal theories of benevolence. Every model of 
morally or politically correct sexual behavior will be subverted, by na¬ 
ture’s daemonic law. Every hour of every day, some horror is being 
committed somewhere. Feminism, arguing from the milder woman’s 
view, completely misses the blood-lust in rape, the joy of violation and 
destruction. An aesthetics and erotics of profanation—evil for the sake 
of evil, the sharpening of the senses by cruelty and torture—have been 
documented in Sade, Baudelaire, and Huysmans. Women may be less 
prone to such fantasies because they physically lack the equipment for 
sexual violence. They do not know the temptation of forcibly invading 
the sanctuary of another body. 

Our knowledge of these fantasies is expanded by pornography, w hich 
is why pornography should be tolerated, though its public display may 
reasonably be restricted. The imagination cannot and must not be 
policed. Pornography shows us nature’s daemonic heart, those eternal 
forces at work beneath and beyond social convention. Pornography 
cannot be separated from art; the two interpenetrate each other, far 
more than humanistic criticism has admitted. Geoffrey Hartman rightly 
says, “Great art is always flanked by its dark sisters, blasphemy and 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


pornography.” 6 Hamlet itself, the cardinal western work, is full of lewd¬ 
ness. Criminals through history, from Nero and Caligula to Gilles de 
Rais and the Nazi commandants, have never needed pornography to 
stimulate their exquisite, gruesome inventiveness. The diabolic human 
mind is quite enough. 

Happy are those periods when marriage and religion are 
strong. System and order shelter us against sex and nature. Unfortu¬ 
nately, we live in a time when the chaos of sex has broken into the open. 
G. Wilson Knight remarks, “Christianity came originally as a tearing 
down of taboos in the name of a sacred humanity; but the Church it 
gave rise to has never yet succeeded in Christianizing the pagan evil 
magic of sex.” 7 Historiography’s most glaring error has been its asser¬ 
tion that Judeo-Christianity defeated paganism. Paganism has survived 
in the thousand forms of sex, art, and now the modem media. Chris¬ 
tianity has made adjustment after adjustment, ingeniously absorbing its 
opposition (as during the Italian Renaissance) and diluting its dogma to 
change with changing times. But a critical point has been reached. With 
the rebirth of the gods in the massive idolatries of popular culture, with 
the eruption of sex and violence into every comer of the ubiquitous mass 
media, Judeo-Christianity is facing its most serious challenge since 
Europe’s confrontation with Islam in the Middle Ages. The latent pa¬ 
ganism of western culture has burst forth again in all its daemonic 

Paganism never was the unbridled sexual licentiousness portrayed by 
missionaries of the young, embattled Christianity. Singling out as typi¬ 
cal of paganism the orgies of bored late Roman aristocrats would be as 
unfair as singling out as typical of Christianity the sins of renegade 
priests or the Vatican revels of Pope Alexander VI. True orgy was a cere¬ 
mony of the chthonian mother-cults in which there were both sex and 
bloodshed. Paganism recognized, honored, and feared nature’s dae- 
monism, and it limited sexual expression by ritual formulae. Christian¬ 
ity was a development of Dionysian mystery religion which paradoxi¬ 
cally tried to suppress nature in favor of a transcendental other world. 
The sole contact with nature that Christianity permitted its followers 
was sex sanctified by marriage. Chthonian nature, embodied in great 
goddess figures, was Christianity’s most formidable opponent. Chris¬ 
tianity works best when revered institutions like monasticism or univer¬ 
sal marriage channel sexual energy in positive directions. Western civi¬ 
lization has profited enormously from the sublimation Christianity 
forced on sex. Christianity works least when sex is constantly stimulated 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

from other directions, as it is now. No transcendental religion can 
compete with the spectacular pagan nearness and concreteness of the 
carnal-red media. Our eyes and ears are drowned in a sensual torrent. 

The pagan ritual identity of sex and violence is mass media’s chief 
check to the complacent Rousseauism of modem humanists. The com¬ 
mercial media, responding directly to popular patronage, sidestep the 
liberal censors who have enjoyed such long control over book culture. In 
film, popular music, and commercials, we contemplate all the dae¬ 
monic myths and sexual stereotypes of paganism that reform move¬ 
ments from Christianity to feminism have never been able to eradicate. 
The sexes are eternally at war. There is an element of attack, of search- 
and-destroy in male sex, in which there will always be a potential for 
rape. There is an element of entrapment in female sex, a subliminal 
manipulation leading to physical and emotional infantilization of the 
male. Freud notes, apropos of his theory of the primal scene, that a child 
overhearing his parents having sex thinks male is wounding female and 
that the woman’s cries of pleasure are cries of pain. Most men merely 
grunt, at best. But woman’s strange sexual cries come directly from the 
chthonian. She is a Maenad about to rend her victim. Sex is an uncanny 
moment of ritual and incantation, in which we hear woman’s barbaric 
ululation of triumph of the will. One domination dissolves into another. 
The dominated becomes the dominator. 

Every menstruating or childbearing woman is a pagan and primitive 
cast back to those distant ocean shores from which we have never fully 
evolved. On the streets of every city, prostitutes, the world’s oldest 
profession, stand as a rebuke to sexual morality. They are the daemonic 
face of nature, initiates of pagan mysteries. Prostitution is not just a 
service industry, mopping up the overflow of male demand, which 
always exceeds female supply. Prostitution testifies to the amoral power 
struggle of sex, which religion has never been able to stop. Prostitutes, 
pomographers, and their patrons are marauders in the forest of archaic 

That nature acts upon the sexes differently is proved by the test case of 
modem male and female homosexuality, illustrating how the sexes 
function separately outside social convention. The result, according to 
statistics of sexual frequency: male satyriasis and female nesting. The 
male homosexual has sex more often than his heterosexual counterpart; 
the female homosexual less often than hers, a radical polarization of the 
sexes along a single continuum of shared sexual nonconformity. Male 
aggression and lust are the energizing factors in culture. They are men’s 
tools of survival in the pagan vastness of female nature. 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


The old “double standard” gave men a sexual liberty denied to 
women. Marxist feminists reduce the historical cult of woman’s vir¬ 
ginity to her property value, her worth on the male marriage market. I 
would argue instead that there was and is a biologic basis to the double 
standard. The first medical reports on the disease killing male homo¬ 
sexuals indicated men most at risk were those with a thousand partners 
over their lifetime. Incredulity. Who could such people be? Why, it 
turned out, everyone one knew. Serious, kind, literate men, not bums or 
thugs. What an abyss divides the sexes! Let us abandon the pretense of 
sexual sameness and admit the terrible duality of gender. 

Male sex is quest romance, exploration and speculation. Promiscu¬ 
ity in men may cheapen love but sharpen thought. Promiscuity in 
women is illness, a leakage of identity. The promiscuous woman is self- 
contaminated and incapable of clear ideas. She has ruptured the ritual 
integrity of her body. It is in nature’s best interests to goad dominant 
males into indiscriminate spreading of their seed. But nature also prof¬ 
its from female purity. Even in the liberated or lesbian woman there is 
some biologic restraint whispering: keep the birth canal clean. In judi¬ 
ciously withholding herself, woman protects an invisible fetus. Perhaps 
this is the reason for the archetypal horror (rather than socialized fear) 
that many otherwise bold women have of spiders and other rapidly 
crawling insects. Women hold themselves in reserve because the female 
body is a reservoir, a virgin patch of still, pooled water where the fetus 
comes to term. Male chase and female flight are not just a social game. 
The double standard may be one of nature’s organic laws. 

The quest romance of male sex is a war between identity and anni¬ 
hilation. An erection is a hope for objectivity, for power to act as a free 
agent. But at the climax of his success, woman is pulling the male back 
to her bosom, drinking and quelling his energy. Freud says, “Man fears 
that his strength will be taken from him by woman, dreads becoming 
infected with her femininity and then proving himself a weakling.” 8 
Masculinity must fight off effeminacy day by day. Woman and nature 
stand ever ready to reduce the male to boy and infant. 

The operations of sex are convulsive, from intercourse through men¬ 
struation and childbirth: tension and distention, spasm, contraction, 
expulsion, relief. The body is wrenched in serpentine swelling and 
sloughing. Sex is not the pleasure principle but the Dionysian bondage 
of pleasure-pain. So much is a matter of overcoming resistance, in the 
body or the beloved, that rape will always be a present danger. Male sex 
is repetition-compulsion: whatever a man writes in the commentary of 
his phallic projections must be rewritten again and again. Sexual man is 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

the magician sawing the lady in half, yet the serpent head and tail 
always live and rejoin. Projection is a male curse: forever to need 
something or someone to make oneself complete. This is one of the 
sources of art and the secret of its historical domination by males. The 
artist is the closest man has come to imitating woman’s superb self¬ 
containment, But the artist needs his art, his projection. The blocked 
artist, like Leonardo, suffers tortures of the damned. The most famous 
painting in the world, the Mona Lisa , records woman’s self-satisfied 
apartness, her ambiguous mocking smile at the vanity and despair of 
her many sons. 

Eveiything great in western culture has come from the quarrel with 
nature. The west and not the east has seen the frightful brutality of 
natural process, the insult to mind in the heavy blind rolling and milling 
of matter. In loss of self we would find not love or God but primeval 
squalor. This revelation has historically fallen upon the western male, 
who-is pulled by tidal rhythms back to the oceanic mother. It is to his 
resentment of this daemonic undertow that we owe the grand con¬ 
structions of our culture. Apollonianism, cold and absolute, is the west’s 
sublime refusal. The Apollonian is a male line drawn against the de¬ 
humanizing magnitude of female nature. 

Everything is melting in nature. We think we see objects, but our eyes 
are slow and partial. Nature is blooming and withering in long puffy 
respirations, rising and falling in oceanic wave-motion. A mind that 
opened itself fully to nature without sentimental preconception would 
be glutted by nature’s coarse materialism, its relentless superfluity. An 
apple tree laden with fruit: how peaceful, how picturesque. But remove 
the rosy filter of humanism from our gaze and look again. See nature 
spuming and frothing, its mad spermatic bubbles endlessly spilling out 
and smashing in that inhuman round of waste, rot, and carnage. From 
the jammed glassy cells of sea roe to the feathery spores poured into the 
air from bursting green pods, nature is a festering hornet’s nest of 
aggression and overkill. This is the chthonian black magic with which 
we are infected as sexual beings; this is the daemonic identity that 
Christianity so inadequately defines as original sin and thinks it can 
cleanse us of. Procreative woman is the most troublesome obstacle to 
Christianity’s claim to catholicity, testified by its wishful doctrines of Im¬ 
maculate Conception and Virgin Birth. The procreativeness of chtho¬ 
nian nature is an obstacle to all of western metaphysics and to each man 
in his quest for identity against his mother. Nature is the seething excess 
of being. 

The most effective weapon against the flux of nature is art. Religion, 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


ritual, and art began as one, and a religious or metaphysical element is 
still present in all art. Art, no matter how minimalist, is never simply 
design. It is always a ritualistic reordering of reality. The enterprise of 
art, in a stable collective era or an unsettled individualistic one, is 
inspired by anxiety. Every subject localized and honored by art is en¬ 
dangered by its opposite. Art is a shutting in in order to shut out Art is a 
ritualistic binding of the perpetual motion machine that is nature. The 
first artist was a tribal priest casting a spell, fixing nature’s daemonic 
energy in a moment of perceptual stillness. Fixation is at the heart of 
art, fixation as stasis and fixation as obsession. The modem artist who 
merely draws a line across a page is still trying to tame some uncontrol¬ 
lable aspect of reality. Art is spellbinding. Art fixes the audience in its 
seat, stops the feet before a painting, fixes a book in the hand. Con¬ 
templation is a magic act. 

Art is order. But order is not necessarily just, kind, or beautiful. Order 
may be arbitrary, harsh, and cruel. Art has nothing to do with morality. 
Moral themes may be present, but they are incidental, simply ground¬ 
ing an art work in a particular time and place. Before the Enlighten¬ 
ment, religious art was hieratic and ceremonial. After the Enlighten¬ 
ment, art had to create its own world, in which a new ritual of artistic 
formalism replaced religious universals. Eighteenth-century Augustan 
literature demonstrates it is the order in morality rather than the moral¬ 
ity in order that attracts the artist. Only utopian liberals could be sur¬ 
prised that the Nazis were art connoisseurs. Particularly in modem 
times, when high art has been shoved to the periphery of culture, is it 
evident that art is aggressive and compulsive. The artist makes art not to 
save humankind but to save himself. Every benevolent remark by an 
artist is a fog to cover his tracks, the bloody trail of his assault against 
reality and others. 

Art is a temenos, a sacred place. It is ritually clean, a swept floor, the 
threshing floor that was the first site of theater. Whatever enters this 
space is transformed. From the bison of cave painting to Hollywood 
movie stars, represented beings enter a cultic other life from which they 
may never emerge. They are spellbound. Art is sacrificial, turning its 
inherent aggression against both artist and representation. Nietzsche 
says, “Almost everything we call ‘higher culture’ is based on the spir¬ 
itualization of cruelty ." 9 Literature’s endless murders and disasters are 
there for contemplative pleasure, not moral lesson. Their status as 
fiction, removed into a sacred precinct, intensifies our pleasure by 
guaranteeing that contemplation cannot turn into action. No lunge by a 
compassionate spectator can avert the cool inevitability of that hieratic 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


ceremony, ritually replayed through time. The blood that is shed will 
always be shed. Ritual in church or theater is amoral fixation, dispelling 
anxiety by formalizing and freezing emotion. The ritual of art is the 
cruel law of pain made pleasure. 

Art makes things. There are, I said, no objects in nature, only the gru¬ 
elling erosion of natural force, flecking, dilapidating, grinding down, 
reducing all matter to fluid, the thick primal soup from which new 
forms bob, gasping for life. Dionysus was identified with liquids— 
blood, sap, milk, wine. The Dionysian is nature’s chthonian fluidity. 
Apollo, on the other hand, gives form and shape, marking off one being 
from another. All artifacts are Apollonian. Melting and union are Dio¬ 
nysian; separation and individuation, Apollonian. Every boy who leaves 
his mother to become a man is turning the Apollonian against the Dio¬ 
nysian. Every artist who is compelled toward art, who needs to make 
words or pictures as others need to breathe, is using the Apollonian to 
defeat chthonian nature. In sex, men must mediate between Apollo and 
Dionysus. Sexually, woman can remain oblique, opaque, taking plea¬ 
sure without tumult or conflict. Woman is a temenos of her own dark 
mysteries. Genitally, man has a little thing that he must keep dipping 
in Dionysian dissolution—a risky business! Thing-making, thing- 
preserving is central to male experience. Man is a fetishist. Without his 
fetish, woman will just gobble him up again. 

Hence the male domination of art and science. Man’s focus, directed- 
ness, concentration, and projection, which I identified with urination 
and ejaculation, are his tools of sexual survival, but they have never 
given him a final victory. The anxiety in sexual experience remains as 
strong as ever. This man attempts to correct by the cult of female beauty. 
He is erotically fixated on woman’s “shapeliness,” those spongy mater¬ 
nal fat deposits of breast, hip, and buttock which are ironically the 
wateriest and least stable parts of her anatomy. Woman’s billowy body 
reflects the surging sea of chthonian nature. By focusing on the shapely, 
by making woman a sex-object, man has struggled to fix and stabilize 
nature’s dreadful flux. Objectification is conceptualization, the highest 
human faculty. Turning people into sex objects is one of the specialties 
of our species. It will never disappear, since it is intertwined with the art- 
impulse and may be identical to it. A sex-object is ritual form imposed 
on nature. It is a totem of our perverse imagination. 

Apollonian thing-making is the main line of western civilization, 
extending from ancient Egypt to the present. Every attempt to repress 
this aspect of our culture has ultimately been defeated. First Judaism, 
then Christianity turned against pagan idol-making. But Christianity, 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

with wider impact than Judaism, became the most art-laden, art- 
dominated religion in the world. Imagination always remedies the 
defects of religion. The hardest object of Apollonian thing-making is 
western personality, the glamourous, striving, separatist ego that en¬ 
tered literature in the Iliad but, I will show, first appeared in art in Old 
Kingdom Egypt. 

Christianity, wiping out paganism’s secular glamours, tried to make 
spirituality primary. But as an embattled sect, it ended by reinforcing 
the west’s absolutist ego-structure. The hero of the medieval Church 
militant, the knight in shining armour, is the most perfect Apollonian 
thing in world history. Art books need to be rewritten: there is a direct 
line from Greek and Roman sculpture through medieval armour to the 
Renaissance revival of classicism. Arms and armour are not handicrafts 
but art. They carry the symbolic weight of western personality. Armour 
is the pagan continuity in medieval Christianity. After the Renaissance 
released the sensual, idolatrous art-making of classicism, the pagan 
line has continued in brazen force to today. The idea that the western 
tradition collapsed after World War One is one of the myopic little sulks 
of liberalism. I will argue that high culture made itself obsolete through 
modernism’s neurotic nihilism and that popular culture is the great heir 
of the western past. Cinema is the supreme Apollonian genre, thing- 
making and thing-made, a machine of the gods. 

Man, the sexual conceptualizer and projector, has ruled art because 
art is his Apollonian response toward and away from woman. A sex 
object is something to aim at. The eye is Apollo’s arrow following the arc 
of transcendance I saw in male urination and ejaculation. The western 
eye is a projectile into the beyond, that wilderness of the male condition. 
By no coincidence, Europe first made firearms for gunpowder, which 
China had invented centuries earlier but found little use for. Phallic 
aggression and projection are intrinsic to western conceptualization. 
Arrow, eye, gun, cinema: the blazing lightbeam of the movie projector is 
our modern path of Apollonian transcendance. Cinema is the culmina¬ 
tion of the obsessive, mechanistic male drive in western culture. The 
movie projector is an Apollonian straightshooter, demonstrating the 
link between aggression and art. Every pictorial framing is a ritual 
limitation, a barred precinct. The rectangular movie screen is clearly 
patterned on the post-Renaissance framed painting. But all conceptual¬ 
ization is a framing. 

The history of costume belongs to art history but is too often regarded 
as a journalistic lady’s adjunct to scholarship. There is nothing trivial 
about fashion. Standards of beauty are conceptualizations projected by 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

3 * 

each culture. They tell us everything. Women have been the most 
victimized by fashion’s ever-turning wheel, binding their feet or bosom 
to phantom commands. But fashion is not just one more political op¬ 
pression to add to the feminist litany. Standards of beauty, created by 
men but usually consented to by women, ritually limit women’s arche¬ 
typal sexual allure. Fashion is an extemalization of woman’s daemonic 
invisibility, her genital mystery. It brings before man’s Apollonian eye 
what that eye can never see. Beauty is an Apollonian freeze-frame: it 
halts and condenses the flux and indeterminacy of nature. It allows man 
to act by enhancing the desirability of what he fears. 

The power of the eye in western culture has not been fully appreci¬ 
ated or analyzed. The Asian abases the eyes and transfers value into a 
mystic third eye, marked by the red dot on the Hindu forehead. Person¬ 
ality is inauthentic in the east, which identifies self with group. Eastern 
meditation rejects historical time. We have a parallel religious tradition: 
the paradoxical axioms of eastern and western mystics and poets are 
often indistinguishable. Buddhism and Christianity agree in seeing the 
material world as samsara , the veil of illusion. But the west has another 
tradition, the pagan, culminating in cinema. The west makes person¬ 
ality and history numinous objects of contemplation. Western person¬ 
ality is a work of art, and history is its stage. The twentieth century is not 
the Age of Anxiety but the Age of Hollywood. The pagan cult of person¬ 
ality has reawakened and dominates all art, all thought. It is morally 
empty but ritually profound. We worship it by the power of the western 
eye. Movie screen and television screen are its sacred precincts. 

Western culture has a roving eye. Male sex is hunting and scanning: 
boys hang yelping from honking cars, acting like jerks over strolling 
girls; men lunching on girders go through the primitive book of wolf 
whistles and animal clucks. Everywhere, the beautiful woman is scru¬ 
tinized and harassed. She is the ultimate symbol of human desire. The 
feminine is that-which-is-sought; it recedes beyond our grasp. Hence 
there is always a feminine element in the beautiful young man of male 
homosexuality. The feminine is the ever-elusive, a silver shimmer on 
the horizon. We follow this image with longing eyes: maybe this one, 
maybe this time. The pursuit of sex may conceal a dream of being freed 
from sex. Sex, knowledge, and power are deeply tangled; we cannot get 
one without the others, Islam is wise to drape women in black, for the 
eye is the avenue of eros. Western culture’s hard, defined personalities 
suffer from inflammation of the eye. They are so numerous that they 
have never been catalogued, except in our magnificent portrait art. 
Western sexual personae are nodes of power, but they have made a 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


torment of eroticism. From this torment has come our grand tradition 
of literature and art. Unfortunately, there is no way to separate the 
whistling ass on his girder from the rapt visionary at his easel. In 
accepting the gifts of culture, women may have to take the worm with 
the apple. 

Judeo-Christianity has failed to control the pagan western eye. Our 
thought processes were formed in Greece and inherited by Rome, 
whose language remains the official voice of the Catholic church. Intel¬ 
lectual inquiry and logic are pagan. Every inquiry is preceded by a 
roving eye; and once the eye begins to rove, it cannot be morally 
controlled. Judaism, due to its fear of the eye, put a taboo on visual 
representation. Judaism is based on word rather than image. Chris¬ 
tianity followed suit, until it drifted into pictorialism to appeal to the 
pagan masses. Protestantism began as an iconoclasm, a breaking of the 
images of the corrupt Roman church. The pure Protestant style is a bare 
white church with plain windows. Italian Catholicism, I am happy to 
say, retains the most florid pictorialism, the bequest of a pagan past that 
was never lost. 

Paganism is eye-intense. It is based on cultic exhibitionism, in which 
sex and sadomasochism are joined. The ancient chthonian mysteries 
have never disappeared from the Italian church. Waxed saints’ corpses 
under glass. Tattered armbones in gold reliquaries. Half-nude St. Se¬ 
bastian pierced by arrows. St. Lucy holding her eyeballs out on a platter. 
Blood, torture, ecstasy, and tears. Its lurid sensationalism makes Italian 
Catholicism the emotionally most complete cosmology in religious his¬ 
tory. Italy added pagan sex and violence to the ascetic Palestinian creed. 
And so to Hollywood, the modern Rome: it is pagan sex and violence 
that have flowered so vividly in our mass media. The camera has un¬ 
bound daemonic western imagination. Cinema is sexual showing , a 
pagan flaunting. Plot and dialogue are obsolete word-baggage. Cin¬ 
ema, the most eye-intense of genres, has restored pagan antiquity’s 
cultic exhibitionism. Spectacle is a pagan cult of the eye. 

There is no such thing as “mere” image. Western culture is built on 
perceptual relations. From the soaring god-projections of ancient sky- 
cult to the celebrity-inflating machinery of American commercial pro¬ 
motion, western identity has organized itself around charismatic sexual 
personae of hierarchic command. Every god is an idol, literally an 
“image” (Latin idolum from Greek eidolon). Image is implied visibility. 
The visual is sorely undervalued in modern scholarship. Art history has 
attained only a fraction of the conceptual sophistication of literary 
criticism. And literature and art remain unmeshed. Drunk with self- 


Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

love, criticism has hugely overestimated the centrality of language to 
western culture. It has failed to see the electrifying sign language of 

The war between Judeo-Christianity and paganism is still being 
waged in the latest ideologies of the university. Freud, as a Jew, may 
have been biased in favor of the word. In my opinion, Freudian theory 
overstates the linguistic character of the unconscious and slights the 
gorgeously cinematic pictorialism of the dream life. Furthermore, ar¬ 
guments by the French about the rationalist limitations of their own 
culture have been illegitimately transferred to England and America, 
with poor results. The English language was created by poets, a five- 
hundred-year enterprise of emotion and metaphor, the richest internal 
dialogue in world literature. French rhetorical models are too narrow 
for the English tradition. Most pernicious of French imports is the 
notion that there is no person behind a text. Is there anything more 
affected, aggressive, and relentlessly concrete than a Parisian intellec¬ 
tual behind his/her turgid text? The Parisian is a provincial when he 
pretends to speak for the universe. Behind every book is a certain person 
with a certain history. I can never know too much about that person and 
that history. Personality is western reality. It is a visible condensation of 
sex and psyche outside the realm of word. We know it by Apollonian 
vision, the pagan cinema of western perception. Let us not steal from 
the eye to give to the ear. 

Word-worship has made it difficult for scholarship to deal with the 
radical cultural change of our era of mass media. Academics are con¬ 
stantly fighting a rearguard action. Traditional genre-criticism is mori¬ 
bund. The humanities must abandon their insular fiefdoms and begin 
thinking in terms of imagination, a power that crosses the genres and 
unites high with popular art, the noble with the sleazy. There is neither 
decline nor disaster in the triumph of mass media, only a shift from 
word to image—in other words, a return to western culture’s pre- 
Gutenberg, pre-Protestant pagan pictorialism. 

That popular culture reclaims what high culture shuts out is clear in 
the case of pornography. Pornography is pure pagan imagism. Just as a 
poem is ritually limited verbal expression, so is pornography ritually 
limited visual expression of the daemonism of sex and nature. Every 
shot, every angle in pornography, no matter how silly, twisted, or pasty, 
is yet another attempt to get the whole picture of the enormity of chtho- 
nian nature. Is pornography art? Yes. Art is contemplation and concep¬ 
tualization, the ritual exhibitionism of primal mysteries. Art makes 
order of nature’s cyclonic brutality. Art, I said, is full of crimes. The 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


ugliness and violence in pornography reflect the ugliness and violence 
in nature. 

Pornography’s male-bom explicitness renders visible what is invis¬ 
ible, woman’s chthonian internality. It tries to shed Apollonian light on 
woman’s anxiety-provoking darkness. The vulgar contortionism of por¬ 
nography is the serpentine tangle of Medusan nature. Pornography is 
human imagination in tense theatrical action; its violations are a protest 
against the violations of our freedom by nature. The banning of por¬ 
nography, rightly sought by Judeo-Christianity, would be a victory over 
the west’s stubborn paganism. But pornography cannot be banned, only 
driven underground, where its illicit charge will be enhanced. Por¬ 
nography’s amoral pictorialism will live forever as a rebuke to the 
humanistic cult of the redemptive word. Words cannot save the cruel 
flux of pagan nature. 

The western eye makes things , idols of Apollonian objectification. 
Pornography makes many well-meaning people uncomfortable be¬ 
cause it isolates the voyeuristic element present in all art, and especially 
cinema. All the personae of art are sex objects. The emotional response 
of spectator or reader is inseparable from erotic response. As I said, our 
lives as physical beings are a Dionysian continuum of pleasure-pain. At 
every moment we are steeped in the sensory, even in sleep. Emotional 
arousal is sensual arousal; sensual arousal is sexual arousal. The idea 
that emotion can be separated from sex is a Christian illusion, one of the 
most ingenious but finally unworkable strategies in Christianity’s an¬ 
cient campaign against pagan nature. Agape, spiritual love, belongs to 
eros but has run away from home. 

We are voyeurs at the perimeters of art, and there is a sadomasochis¬ 
tic sensuality in our responses to it. Art is a scandal, literally a “stum¬ 
bling block,” to all moralism, whether on the Christian right or Rous- 
seauist left. Pornography and art are inseparable, because there is 
voyeurism and voracity in all our sensations as seeing, feeling beings. 
The fullest exploration of these ideas is Edmund Spenser’s Renaissance 
epic, The Faerie Queene. In this poem, which prefigures cinema by its 
radiant Apollonian projections, the voyeuristic and sadomasochistic 
latency in art and sex is copiously documented. Western perception is a 
daemonic theater of ritual surprise. We may not like what we see when 
we look into the dark mirror of art. 

Sex object, art work, personality: western experience is cellular and 
divisive. It imposes a graph of marked-off spaces on nature’s continuity 
and flow. We have made Apollonian demarcations that function as 
ritual preserves against nature; hence our complex criminal codes and 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 

elaborate erotics of transgression. The weakness in radical critiques of 
sex and society is that they fail to recognize that sex needs ritual binding 
to control its daemonism and secondly that society’s repressions in¬ 
crease sexual pleasure. There is nothing less erotic than a nudist colony. 
Desire is intensified by ritual limitations. Hence the mask, harness, and 
chains of sadomasochism. 

The western cells of holiness and criminality are a cognitive advance 
in human history. Our cardinal myths are Faust, who locks himself in 
his study to read books and crack the code of nature, and Don Juan, 
who makes a war of pleasure and counts his conquests by Apollonian 
number. Both are cellular egos, seducers and criminal knowers, in 
whom sex, thought, and aggression are fused. This cell separated from 
nature is our brain and eye. Our hard personalities are imagistic projec¬ 
tions from the Apollonian higher cortex. Personae are visible ideas. All 
facial expressions and theatrical postures, present among animal pri¬ 
mates, are fleeting shadows of personae. While Japanese decorum 
limits facial expressions, western art since the Hellenistic era has re¬ 
corded every permutation of irony, anxiety, flirtation, and menace. The 
hardness of our personalities and the tension with which they are set off 
from nature have produced the west’s vulnerability to decadence. Ten¬ 
sion leads to fatigue and collapse, “late” phases of history in which 
sadomasochism flourishes. As I will show, decadence is a disease of the 
eye , a sexual intensification of artistic voyeurism. 

The Apollonian things of western sex and art reach their economic 
glorification in capitalism. In the past fifteen years, Marxist approaches 
to literature have enjoyed increasing vogue. To be conscious of the 
social context of art seems automatically to entail a leftist orientation. 
But a theory is possible that is both avant-garde and capitalist. Marxism 
was one of Rousseau’s nineteenth-century progeny, energized by faith 
in the perfectibility of man. Its belief that economic forces are the 
primary dynamic in history is Romantic naturism in disguise. That is, it 
sketches a surging wave-motion in the material context of human life 
but tries to deny the perverse daemonism of that context. Marxism is the 
bleakest of anxiety-formations against the power of chthonian mothers. 
Its influence on modem historiography has been excessive. The “great 
man” theory of history was not as simplistic as claimed; we have barely 
recovered from a world war in which this theory was proved evilly true. 
One man can change the course of history, for good or ill. Marxism is a 
flight from the magic of person and the mystique of hierarchy. It distorts 
the character of western culture, which is based on charismatic power of 
person. Marxism can work only in pre-industrial societies of homoge- 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


neous populations. Raise the standard of living, and the rainbow riot of 
individualism will break out. Personality and art, which Marxism fears 
and censors, rebound from every effort to repress them. 

Capitalism, gaudy and greedy, has been inherent in western aes¬ 
thetics from ancient Egypt on. It is the mysticism and glamour of things , 
which take on a personality of their own. As an economic system, it is in 
the Darwinian line of Sade, not Rousseau. The capitalist survival of the 
fittest is already present in the Iliad. Western sexual personae clash by 
day and by night. Homer’s gleaming bronze-clad warriors are the Apol¬ 
lonian soup cans that crowd the sunny temples of our supermarkets and 
compete for our attention on television. The west objectifies persons 
and personalizes objects. The teeming multiplicity of capitalist products 
is an Apollonian correction of nature. Brand names are territorial cells 
of western identity. Our shiny chrome automobiles, like our armies of 
grocery boxes and cans, are extrapolations of hard, impermeable west¬ 
ern personality. 

Capitalist products are another version of the art works flooding 
western culture. The portable framed painting appeared at the birth of 
modem commerce in the early Renaissance. Capitalism and art have 
challenged and nourished each other ever since. Capitalist and artist 
are parallel types: the artist is just as amoral and acquisitive as the 
capitalist, and just as hostile to competitors. That in the age of the 
merchant-prince art works are hawked and sold like hot dogs supports 
my argument but is not central to it. Western culture is animated by a 
visionary materialism. Apollonian formalism has stolen from nature to 
make a romance of things , hard, shiny, crass, and willful. 

The capitalist distribution network, a complex chain of factory, trans¬ 
port, warehouse, and retail outlet, is one of the greatest male accom¬ 
plishments in the history of culture. It is a lightning-quick Apollonian 
circuit of male bonding. One of feminism’s irritating reflexes is its 
fashionable disdain for “patriarchal society,” to which nothing good is 
ever attributed. But it is patriarchal society that has freed me as a 
woman. It is capitalism that has given me the leisure to sit at this desk 
writing this book. Let us stop being small-minded about men and freely 
acknowledge what treasures their obsessiveness has poured into cul¬ 

We could make an epic catalog of male achievements, from paved 
roads, indoor plumbing, and washing machines to eyeglasses, antibiot¬ 
ics, and disposable diapers. We enjoy fresh, safe milk and meat, and 
vegetables and tropical fruits heaped in snowbound cities. When I cross 
the George Washington Bridge or any of America’s great bridges, I 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


think: men have done this. Construction is a sublime male poetry. When 
I see a giant crane passing on a flatbed truck, I pause in awe and 
reverence, as one would for a church procession. What power of con¬ 
ception, what grandiosity: these cranes tie us to ancient Egypt, where 
monumental architecture was first imagined and achieved. If civiliza¬ 
tion had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts. 
A contemporary woman clapping on a hard hat merely enters a concep¬ 
tual system invented by men. Capitalism is an art form, an Apollonian 
fabrication to rival nature. It is hypocritical for feminists and intellec¬ 
tuals to enjoy the pleasures and conveniences of capitalism while sneer¬ 
ing at it. Even Thoreau’s Walden was just a two-year experiment. 
Everyone bom into capitalism has incurred a debt to it. Give Caesar his 

The pagan dialectic of Apollonian and Dionysian was sweepingly 
comprehensive and accurate about mind and nature. Christian love is 
so lacking its emotional polarity that the Devil had to be invented to 
focus natural human hatred and hostility. Rousseauism’s Christianized 
psychology has led to the tendency of liberals toward glumness or 
depression in the face of the political tensions, wars, and atrocities that 
daily contradict their assumptions. Perhaps the more we are sensitized 
by reading and education, the more we must repress the facts of chtho- 
nian nature. But the insupportable feminist dichotomy between sex and 
power must go. Just as the hatreds of divorce court expose the dark face 
beneath the mask of love, so is the truth about nature revealed during 
crisis. Victims of tornado and hurricane instinctively speak of “the fury 
of Mother Nature”—how often we hear that phrase as the television 
camera follows dazed survivors picking through the wreckage of homes 
and towns. In the unconscious, everyone knows that Jehovah has never 
gained control of the savage elements. Nature is Pandemonium, an All 
Devils’ Day. 

There are no accidents, only nature throwing her weight around. 
Even the bomb merely releases energy that nature has put there. Nu¬ 
clear war would be just a spark in the grandeur of space. Nor can 
radiation “alter” nature: she will absorb it all. After the bomb, nature 
will pick up the cards we have spilled, shuffle them, and begin her game 
again. Nature is forever playing solitaire with herself. 

Western love has been ambivalent from the start. As early as Sappho 
(600 b.c.) or even earlier in the epic legend of Helen of Troy, art records 
the push and pull of attraction and hostility in that perverse fascination 
we call love. There is a magnetics of eroticism in the west, due to the 
hardness of western personality: eroticism is an electric forcefield be- 

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art 


tween masks. The modem pursuit of self-realization has not led to 
sexual happiness, because assertions of selfhood merely release the 
amoral chaos of libido. Freedom is the most overrated modern idea, 
originating in the Romantic rebellion against bourgeois society. But 
only in society can one be an individual. Nature is waiting at society’s 
gates to dissolve us in her chthonian bosom. Out with stereotypes, 
feminism proclaims. But stereotypes are the west’s stunning sexual 
personae, the vehicles of art’s assault against nature. The moment there 
is imagination, there is myth. We may have to accept an ethical cleavage 
between imagination and reality, tolerating horrors, rapes, and mutila¬ 
tions in art that we would not tolerate in society. For art is our message 
from the beyond, telling us what nature is up to. Not sex but cruelty is 
the great neglected or suppressed item on the modem humanistic 
agenda. We must honor the chthonian but not necessarily yield to it. In 
The Rape of the Lock , Pope counsels good humor as the only solution to 
sex war. So with our enslavement by chthonian nature. We must accept 
our pain, change what we can, and laugh at the rest. But let us see art for 
what it is and nature for what it is. From remotest antiquity, western art 
has been a parade of sexual personae, emanations of absolutist western 
mind. Western art is a cinema of sex and dreaming. Art is form strug¬ 
gling to wake from the nightmare of nature. 

2 _ 

The Birth of the Western Eye 

Mythology begins with cosmogony the creation of the 
world. Somehow out of the chaos of matter comes order. The plenum, a 
soupy fullness, divides itself into objects and beings. Cosmogonies vary 
among societies. Earth-cult admits the priority and primacy of nature. 
For Judeo-Christianity, a sky-cult, God creates nature rather than vice 
versa. His consciousness precedes and engulfs all. 

Hebrew cosmogony, in the polemical poetry of Genesis, is lofty in its 
claims. Creation is rational and systematic. The evolution of forms 
proceeds majestically, without carnage or cataclysm. God presides with 
workmanlike detachment. The cosmos is something constructed, a 
framed dwelling for man. God is a spirit, a presence. He has no name 
and no body. He is beyond sex and against sex, which belongs to the 
lower realm. Yet God is distinctly he , a father and not a mother. Female¬ 
ness is subordinate, an afterthought. Eve is merely a sliver pulled from 
Adam’s belly. Maleness is magic, the potent principle of universal cre¬ 

The book of Genesis is a male declaration of independence from the 
ancient mother-cults. Its challenge to nature, so sexist to modern ears, 
marks one of the crucial moments in western history. Mind can never be 
free of matter. Yet only by mind imagining itself free can culture ad¬ 
vance. The mother-cults, by reconciling man to nature, entrapped him 
in matter. Everything great in western civilization has come from strug¬ 
gle against our origins. Genesis is rigid and unjust, but it gave man hope 
as a man. It remade the world by male dynasty, cancelling the power of 

Jehovah exists somewhere outside his creation, beyond space and 
time. Most ancient cosmogonies begin with a primeval being who 
embraces all opposites and contains everything that is or can be. Why 
should any eternal, self-sufficient god add to what already is? Whether 
out of loneliness or a craving for drama, primeval deities set off the 


The Birth of the Western Eye 


motion-machine and add to their own troubles. My favorite such god is 
Egyptian Khepera, who gives birth to the second stage of existence by an 
act of masturbation: “I had union with my hand, and I embraced my 
shadow in a love embrace; I poured seed into my own mouth, and sent 
forth from myself issue in the form of the gods Shu and Tefnut.” 1 
Logically, primeval hierarchs must dig into themselves to continue the 
story of creation. Jehovah, as much as Khepera, multiplies by self¬ 

Virtually all cosmogonies but ours are overtly sexual. The primeval 
deity may be hermaphroditic, like Egypt’s mother goddess Mut, who 
has both male and female genitals. Or there is wholesale incest, the only 
sex possible when the in-group is the only group. Developed mytholo¬ 
gies ignore the incest or edit it out, as Genesis does in discreetly passing 
over the question of whom Cain and Abel must many to get on with 
history. Similarly, Greek myth stresses Hera as Zeus’ wife but makes 
little of the fact that she is also his sister. In Egypt there never was so 
stringent a purification of sacred texts, and primitive motifs lingered on 
to the end. Isis and Osiris are distinctly sister and brother as well as wife 
and husband. Egyptian gods are tangled in archaic family romance. 
The mother goddess Hathor, for example, is eerily called “the mother of 
her father and the daughter of her son.” As in Romanticism, identity is 
regressive and supercondensed. The sexual irregularities of fertility 
gods are intrinsic to the dark, disorderly mystery of sexual growth. 

Judaism, though ascribing artfulness to God, is inhospitable to art in 
man. Earth-cult’s lurid sexual symbolism contains a psychic truth: 
there is a sexual element in all creation, in nature or art. Khepera eating 
his own seed is a model of Romantic creativity, where the self is isolated 
and sexually dual. Khepera bent over himself is a uroboros, the serpent 
eating its own tail, a magic circle of regeneration and rebirth. The 
uroboros is the prehistoric track of natural cycle, from which Judaism 
and Hellenism make a conceptual break. Later in this book, I will argue 
that Romanticism restores the archaic western past, divining lost or 
suppressed pagan myths. Incest, erotic solipsism, is everywhere in Ro¬ 
mantic poetry. Masturbation, subliminal in Coleridge and Poe, boldly 
emerges in later Romantics like Walt Whitman, Aubrey Beardsley, and 
Jean Genet, libidinous solitary dreamers. Khepera is the androgyne as 

The supreme symbol of fertility religion is the Great Mother, a figure 
of double-sexed primal power. Many mother goddesses of the Mediter¬ 
ranean world were indiscriminately fused in the syncretism of the 
Roman empire. They include Egyptian Isis, Cretan and Mycenaean 


The Birth of the Western Eye 

Gaia and Rhea, Cyprian Aphrodite, Phrygian Cybele, Ephesian Arte¬ 
mis, Syrian Dea, Persian Anaitis, Babylonian Ishtar, Phoenician As- 
tarte, Canaanite Atargatis, Cappadocian Ma, and Thracian Bendis and 
Cottyto. The Great Mother embodied the gigantism and unknowability 
of primeval nature. She descended from the period before agriculture, 
when nature seemed autocratic and capricious. Woman and nature 
were in mysterious harmony. Early man saw no necessary connec¬ 
tion between coitus and conception, since sexual relations often pre¬ 
ceded menstruation. Even today, pregnancy is unpredictable and takes 
months to show. Woman’s fertility, following its own laws, inspired awe 
and fear. 

Though woman was at the center of early symbolism, real women 
were powerless. A fantasy dogging feminist writing is that there was 
once a peaceable matriarchy overthrown by warmongering men, found¬ 
ers of patriarchal society. The idea began with Bachofen in the nine¬ 
teenth century and was adopted by Jane Harrison, that great scholar’s 
one error. Not a shred of evidence supports the existence of matriarchy 
anywhere in the world at any time. Matriarchy, political rule by women, 
must not be confused with matrilineage, passive transmission of prop¬ 
erty or authority through the female side. The matriarchy hypothesis, 
revived by American feminism, continues to flourish outside the univer¬ 

Primitive life, far from peaceable, was submerged in the turbulence 
of nature. Man’s superior strength provided protection to women, par¬ 
ticularly in the incapacitating final stages of pregnancy. The polar¬ 
ization of sex roles probably occurred rather early. Men roamed and 
hunted, while women in their gathering forays ventured no farther from 
the campsite than they could carry their nursing infants. There was 
simple logic in this, not injustice. The link between father and child was 
a late development. Margaret Mead remarks, “Human fatherhood is a 
social invention.” 2 James Joyce says, “Paternity may be a legal fiction.” 3 
Society had advanced when the male contribution to conception was 
acknowledged. Both sexes have profited from the consolidation and 
stability of the family. 

The myth of matriarchy may have originated in our universal experi¬ 
ence of mother power in infancy. We are all bom from a female co¬ 
lossus. Erich Neumann calls the first stage of psychic development 
“matriarchal.” 4 Therefore every person’s passage from nursery to so¬ 
ciety is an overthrow of matriarchy. As history, the idea of matriarchy is 
spurious, but as metaphor, it is poetically resonant. It is crucial for the 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


interpretation of dreams and art, in which the mother remains domi¬ 
nant. Matriarchy hovers behind art works like the Venus de Milo , Mona 
Lisa , and Whistler's Mother ; which popular imagination has made 
culturally archetypal. We will examine the way Romanticism, as part of 
its archaizing movement, restores the mother to matriarchal power, 
notably in Goethe, Wordsworth, and Swinburne. 

The autonomy of the ancient mother goddesses was sometimes called 
virginity. A virgin fertility seems contradictory, but it survives in the 
Christian Virgin Birth. Hera and Aphrodite annually renewed their vir¬ 
ginity by bathing in a sacred spring. The same duality appears in Arte¬ 
mis, who was honored both as virgin huntress and patron of childbirth. 
The Great Mother is a virgin insofar as she is independent of men. She 
is a sexual dictator, symbolically impenetrable. Males are nonpersons: 
Neumann elsewhere speaks of “the anonymous power of the fertilizing 
agent.” 5 Thus Joyce’s sensual Great Mother, Molly Bloom, sleepily 
mulls over all the men in her life as “he,” implying their casual inter¬ 
changeability. The Great Mother did not even need a male to fertilize 
her: the Egyptian goddess Net gives birth to Ra by parthenogenesis or 

The mother goddess gives life but takes it away. Lucretius says, “The 
universal mother is also the common grave.” 6 She is morally ambiva¬ 
lent, violent as well as benevolent. The sanitized pacifist goddess pro¬ 
moted by feminism is wishful thinking. From prehistory to the end of 
the Roman empire, the Great Mother never lost her barbarism. She is 
the ever-changing face of chthonian nature, now savage, now smiling. 
The medieval Madonna, a direct descendant of Isis, is a Great Mother 
with her chthonian terror removed. She has lost her roots in nature, 
because it is pagan nature that Christianity rose to oppose. 

The masculine side of the Great Mother is often expressed in ser¬ 
pents, wound about her arms or body. Mary trampling the serpent un¬ 
derfoot recalls pagan images in which goddess and serpent are one. The 
serpent inhabits the womblike underworld of mother earth. It is both 
male and female, piercing and strangling. Apuleius calls the Syrian 
goddess “omnipotens et omniparens,” all-potent and all-producing. 7 
Energy and abundance on so vast a scale can be crushing and cold. The 
fluid serpent will never be converted to friend. 

The goddess’ animal fecundity was cruelly dramatized in ritual. Her 
devotees practiced castration, breast-amputation, self-flagellation or 
slashing, and dismemberment of beasts. This sacrificial extremity of 
experience mimics the horrors of chthonian nature. Today such be- 


The Birth of the Western Eye 

havior survives only in sexual sadomasochism, universally labeled per¬ 
verse. I think sadomasochism an archaizing phenomenon, returning 
the imagination to pagan nature-worship. Lewis Farnell says whipping 
in vegetation-rites was meant to increase fertility or, more often, “to 
drive out from the body impure influences or spirits, so that it may 
become the purer vehicle of divine force.” 8 In the Roman Lupercalia, 
depicted in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, youths ran naked through the 
streets and struck matrons with leather thongs to stimulate childbear¬ 
ing. Newlyweds are pelted with rice to drive off evil spirits and fertilize 
the bride. Blows mark a rite of passage into maturity. The kneeling 
knight is struck with sword on shoulder by his lord. At Catholic Confir¬ 
mation, the kneeling adolescent is slapped by the bishop. The Orthodox 
Jewish girl at first menstruation is slapped by her mother. In Stover at 
Yale (1911), the lucky initiate to Skull and Bones is ambushed at night 
and slammed on the back. Blows are archaic magic, punishing marks of 

Castration in the mother-cults may have imitated the reaping of 
crops. Only stone tools could be used for ritual castration; bronze or 
iron was forbidden, indicating the custom’s prehistoric origins.. Edith 
Weigert-Vowinkel endorses the view that the Phiygians borrowed cas¬ 
tration from the Semites, who altered it over time to circumcision, and 
that the celibacy of Catholic priests is a'substitute for castration. 9 The 
halolike tonsure of Catholic monks, like the shaved heads of priests of 
Isis, is a lesser self-mutilation. By castration, the devotee subordinated 
himself to the female life force. Contact with the goddess was dan¬ 
gerous. After making love with Aphrodite, Anchises ended up crippled, 
so that he had to be carried from burning Troy by his son Aeneas. The 
stoiy that he was punished for boasting of his tryst is likely a late 
addition. H. J. Rose says of Anchises’ handicap, “The business of fertil¬ 
izing the Great Mother was so exacting as utterly to exhaust the strength 
of her inferior male partner, who consequently, if he did not die, became 
a eunuch.” 10 Maleness is obliterated by shocks of female power. 

Self-castration was a one-way road to ritual impersonation. In the 
mystery religions, which influenced Christianity, the devotee imitated 
and sought union with his god. The priest of the Great Mother changed 
sex in order to become her. Transsexualism was the severe choice, 
transvestism less so. In ceremonies at Syracuse, men were initiated in 
Demeter’s purple robe. In ancient Mexico, a woman representing the 
goddess was flayed and her skin put on by a male priest. The Great 
Mother’s eunuch priest was called “she.” Thus after Catullus’ Attis 
castrates himself, the pronouns shift from masculine to feminine. To- 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


day, etiquette requires one to refer to the urban drag queen as “she,” 
even when he is in male dress. 

Spiritual enlightenment produces feminization of the male. Mead 
says, “The more intricate biological pattern of the female has become a 
model for the artist, the mystic, and the saint.” 11 Intuition or extra¬ 
sensory perception is a feminine hearkening to the secret voices in 
and beyond things. Famell says, “Many ancient observers noted that 
women (and effeminate men) were especially prone to orgiastic re¬ 
ligious seizure.” 12 Hysteria means womb-madness (from the Greek 
ustera, “womb”). Women were sibyls and oracles, subject to prophetic 
visions. Herodotus speaks of Scythian Enarees, male prophets afflicted 
by a “female disease,” probably sexual impotence. 13 This phenomenon 
called shamanism migrated northward to Central Asia and has been 
reported in North and South America and Polynesia. Frazer describes 
the shaman’s stages of sexual transformation, which resemble those of 
our candidates for sex-reassignment surgery. The religious call may 
come as a dream in which the man is “possessed by a female spirit.” He 
adopts female speech, hair style, and clothing and finally takes a hus¬ 
band. 14 The Siberian shaman, who wears a woman’s caftan sewn with 
large round disks as female breasts, is for Mircea Eliade an example of 
“ritual androgyny,” symbolizing the coincidentia oppositorum or recon¬ 
ciliation of opposites. 15 Inspired, the shaman goes into a trance and falls 
unconscious. He may disappear, either to fly over distant lands or to die 
and be resurrected. The shaman is an archaic prototype of the artist, 
who also crosses sexes and commands space and time. How many 
modem transsexuals are unacknowledged shamans? Perhaps it is to 
poets they should go for counsel, rather than surgeons. 

Teiresias, the androgynous Greek shaman, is depicted as an old man 
with long beard and pendulous female breasts. In Homer, Circe tells 
Odysseus his quest for home cannot succeed until he descends to the 
underworld to consult the seer. It is as if Teiresias, in the underworld of 
racial memory, represents a fullness of emotional knowledge fusing the 
sexes. The masculine glamour of the Iliad is gone. When we first see the 
hero of the Odyssey ; he is weeping. The ruling virtues of this poem are 
female perception and endurance, rather than aggressive action. In 
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex , Teiresias is the hero’s double. Teiresias and 
Oedipus are involuntary initiates into an uncanny range of sexual expe¬ 
rience. At the start, Teiresias holds the key to the mystery of plague and 
perversion. He alone knows the secret of Oedipal family romance, with 
its inflamed multiplicities of identity: Oedipus is husband and son, 
father and brother. At play’s end, Oedipus has literally become Teire- 


The Birth of the Western Eye 

sias, a blind holy man who pays the price of esoteric knowledge. In The 
Waste Land , T. S. Eliot, following Apollinaire, makes Teiresias the 
witness and repository of modern sexual miseries. 

How did Teiresias become an androgyne? On Mount Cithaeron 
(where infant Oedipus was exposed), he stumbled upon two snakes 
mating, for which he was punished by being turned into a woman. 
Seven years later, he came upon the same sight and was turned back 
into a man. The tale confirms the terrible consequences of seeing 
something forbidden to mortals. Thus Actaeon was tom to pieces by his 
hunting dogs for finding Artemis at her bath. Callimachus claims 
Teiresias was blinded for accidentally seeing Athena bathing. Hesiod 
says: “This same Teiresias was chosen by Zeus and Hera to decide the 
question whether the male or the female has most pleasure in inter¬ 
course. And he said: ‘Of ten parts a man enjoys one only; but a woman’s 
sense enjoys all ten in full.’ For this Hera was angiy and blinded him, 
but Zeus gave him the seer’s power.” 16 The oldest part of Teiresias’ story 
is the meeting with mating snakes, a chthonian motif. The uncanny or 
grotesque in myth is evidence of extreme antiquity. The bantering 
comic tone of Zeus and Hera’s domestic dispute marks it a^ later 
ornamentation. Charm in myths is a coming in from the chthonian 

I adopt the name “Teiresias” for a category of androgyne, the nur- 
turant male or male mother. He can be found in sculptures of classical 
river gods, in Romantic poetry (Wordsworth and Keats), and in modern 
popular culture (television talk-show hosts). I take one more model 
from Greek prophetic transsexualism, the Delphic oracle. Delphi, holi¬ 
est spot of the ancient Mediterranean, was once dedicated to female 
deities, as the priestess recalls at the opening of Aeschylus’ Eumenides. 
W. F. Jackson Knight asserts that “Delphi means the female generative 
organ.” 17 The delta has been found to symbolize the female pubes in 
societies as far as the Brazilian jungle. The Delphic oracle was called 
the Pythia or Pythoness after the giant serpent Pytho, slain by invading 
Apollo. Legend claims the oracle was maddened by fumes rising from a 
chasm above the decaying chthonian serpent. But no chasm has been 
found at Delphi. 

The oracle was Apollo’s high priestess and spoke for him. Pilgrims, 
royal and lowly, arrived at Delphi with questions and left with cryptic 
replies. It was after descending from Delphi that Oedipus collided with 
his father at the crossroads—a spot in the Greek pastureland still un¬ 
changed after three thousand years of ghostly legend. The prophesying 
oracle was the instrument of the god of poetry, a lyre upon which he 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


played. E. R. Dodds states, “The Pythia became entheos , plena deo: the 
god entered into her and used her vocal organs as if they were his own, 
exactly as the so-called ‘control’ does in modem spirit-mediumship; 
that is why Apollo’s Delphic utterances are always couched in the first 
person, never in the third.” 18 This resembles the ventriloquism Frazer 
ascribes to entranced shamans. Michelangelo uses the Delphic meta¬ 
phor in a madrigal comparing a Renaissance virago, intellectual and 
poet Vittoria Colonna, to the oracle: “A man in a woman, indeed a god, 
speaks through her mouth.” The Delphic oracle is a woman invaded by 
a male spirit. She suffers usurpation of identity, like the mental sex- 
transformations of great dramatists and novelists. I designate as “the 
Pythoness” another category of androgyne, of which my best example 
will be the sibylline comedienne Gracie Allen. 

The Great Mother is the master image from which split 
off surrogate subforms of female horrors, like Gorgon and Fury. The 
vagina dentata literalizes the sexual anxiety of these myths. In the North 
American Indian version, says Neumann, “A meat-eating fish inhabits 
the vagina of the Terrible Mother; the hero is the man who overcomes 
the Terrible Mother, breaks the teeth out of her vagina, and so makes 
her into a woman.” 19 The toothed vagina is no sexist hallucination: 
every penis is made less in every vagina, just as mankind, male and 
female, is devoured by mother nature. The vagina dentata is part of the 
Romantic revival of pagan myth. It is subliminally present in Poe’s 
voracious maelstrom and dank, scythe-swept pit. It overtly appears in 
the bible of French Decadence, Huysmans’ A Rebours (1884), where a 
dreamer is magnetically drawn toward mother nature’s open thighs, the 
“bloody depths” of a carnivorous flower rimmed by “swordblades.” 20 

The Greek Gorgon was a kind of vagina dentata. In Archaic art, she is 
a grinning head with beard, tusks, and outthrust tongue. She has snakes 
in her hair or around her waist. She runs in swastika form, a symbol of 
primitive vitality. Her beard, a postmenopausal virilization, turns up on 
the witches of Macbeth. She is like a jack-o’-lantem or death’s-head, 
the spectral night face of mother nature. The gorgoneion or “bodiless 
head of fright” antedates by many centuries the Gorgon with a woman’s 
body. 21 The Perseus legend obscures an ancient prototype: the hero 
seizes a trophy that cannot be severed or slain (fig. 1). 

Men, never women, are turned to stone by gazing at Medusa. Freud 
interprets this as the “terror of castration” felt by boys at their first 
glimpse of female genitals. 22 Richard Tristman feels the staring mecha¬ 
nism involved in male consumption of pornography is a compulsive 


The Birth of the Western Eye 

1. Perseus Cutting Off the Head of Medusa, from the metope of Temple C at 
Selinus, Sicily, ca. 550-540 b.c. 

scrutiny or searching for the missing female penis. That female genitals 
do resemble a wound is evident in those slang terms “slash” and “gash.” 
Huysmans calls the genital flower a “hideous flesh-wound.” Flower, 
mouth, wound: the Gorgon is a reverse image of the Mystic Rose of 
Mary. Woman’s genital wound is a furrow in female earth. Snaky 
Medusa is the thorny undergrowth of nature’s relentless fertility. 

The Gorgon’s name comes from the adjective gorgos , “terrible, fear¬ 
ful, fierce.” Gorgopos , “fierce-eyed, terrible,” is an epithet of Athena, 
who wears the Gorgon’s head on breast and shield, a gift from Perseus. 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


It is an apotropaion, a charm to ward off evil spirits, like the giant eye 
painted on prows of ancient ships. Jackson Knight says of the gorgo- 
neion, “It occurs on shields, on the brow-bands of war-horses, and on 
the doors of ovens, where it was meant to exclude evil influences from 
the bread.” 23 Jane Harrison compares the Gorgon’s head to primitive 
ritual masks: “They are the natural agents of a religion of fear and 
‘riddance’. . . . The function of such masks is permanently to ‘make an 
ugly face’, at you if you are doing wrong, breaking your word, robbing 
your neighbor, meeting him in battle;/or you if you are doing right.” 24 
Apotropaic charms are common in Italy, where belief in the evil eye is 
still strong. Gold hands and red or gold horns dangle from necks and 
hang in kitchens next to chains of garlic to drive away vampires. The 
Mediterranean has never lost its chthonian cultism. 

I use the apotropaic gorgoneion in two major ways. Art and religion 
come from the same part of the mind. Great cult symbols transfer 
smoothly into artistic experience. Solitary or highly original artists often 
make apotropaic art. The Mona Lisa , for example, seems to have func¬ 
tioned as an apotropaion for Leonardo, who refused to part with it until 
his death at the court of the French king (hence its presence in the 
Louvre). Ambiguous Mona Lisa, presiding over her desolate landscape, 
is a gorgoneion, staring hierarch of pitiless nature. 

A second apotropaion: Joyces dense modernist style. Joyce has only 
one subject—Ireland. His writing is both a protest against an intoler¬ 
able spiritual dependency and ironically an immortalization of the 
power that bound him. Ireland is a Gorgon, in Joyce’s words “the 
Mother Sow who eats her children.” Knight compares the mazelike 
meander design on Greek houses to “tangled thread” charms on British 
doorsteps: “Tangled drawings are meant to entangle intruders, as the 
tangled reality of a labyrinthine construction at the approach to a fort 
actually helps very much to entangle attackers.” 25 Language as laby¬ 
rinth: Joyce’s aggressive impenetrability is the hex sign of Harrison’s 
“religion of fear and ‘riddance’.” We will later examine the creator of 
the first impenetrable modem style, Henry James. There we return full 
circle to the Great Mother, for my theory is that James’s Decadent late 
style is the heavy ritual transvestism of a eunuch-priest of the mother 

My third apotropaion: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse , a novel as 
ghost dance, as invocation and exorcism. From Woolf’s diary: 

Father’s birthday. He would have been 96, 96, yes, today; and 

could have been 96, like other people one has known: but mer- 


The Birth of the Western Eye 

cifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What 
would have happened? No writing, no books—inconceivable. 

I used to think of him and mother daily; but writing the Light¬ 
house laid them in my mind. And now he comes back sometimes, 
but differently. (I believe this to be true—that I was obsessed by 
them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.) 26 

An apotropaion bars encroachment by the dead. The ghost of Odysseus’ 
mother, let us recall, is thirsty for blood. Unsentimentally, Woolf wishes 
for no longer years for her father. Contest for life is a Sadean power 
struggle. To the Lighthouse is filled with imagines , ancestor masks. The 
Romans put them in the atrium to keep them out of the bedroom. As 
family romance, To the Lighthouse is the gorgoneion on the oven door, 
which must be shut to make a room of one’s own. The novel has a 
second ritual pattern: the Eleusinian heuresis or “finding again” of 
Persephone by Demeter. In To the Lighthouse , mother and daughter 
reunite, but only to bid farewell. 

Now my other major use of the gorgoneion. The ugly staring Gorgon 
is the daemonic eye. She is the paralyzing animal eye of chthonian 
nature, the glittering, mesmerizing eye of vampires and seductresses. 
The tusked Gorgon is the eye which eats. In other words, the eye is still 
bound to biology. It hungers. I will show that the west invented a new 
eye, contemplative, conceptual, the eye of art. It was bom in Egypt. This 
is the Apollonian solar disk, illuminating and idealizing. The Gorgon is 
the night eye, Apollo the day. I will argue that the origin of the Greek 
Apollonian is in Egypt. Greek ideas are creatures of Egyptian formal¬ 
ism. It is untrue the Egyptians had no ideas. There are, I said, ideas in 
images. Egyptian images made western imagination. Egypt liberated 
and divinized the human eye. The Apollonian eye is the brain’s great 
victory over the bloody open mouth of mother nature. 

Only the Sphinx is as symbolically rich as the Gorgon. There are be¬ 
nign made sphinxes in Egypt, but the famous one is female, bom of the 
incest of half-serpent Echidna with her dog-son Orthus. The Sphinx 
has a woman’s head and bosom, a griffin’s wings, and a lion’s claws 
and rump. Her name means “the Throttler” (from the Greek sphiggo , 
“strangle”). The riddle by which she defeats all men but Oedipus is the 
ungraspable mystery of nature, which will defeat Oedipus anyway. The 
Gorgon rules the eye, while the Sphinx rules words. She rules them by 
stopping them, stillborn, in the throat. Poets appeal to the Muse to stave 
off the Sphinx. In Coleridge’s ChristabeL, one of the great horror stories 
of Romanticism, Muse and Sphinx merge, changing the poet’s sex and 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


making him mute. Birth is taking first breath. But the Sphinx of nature 
throttles us in the womb. 

Other subforms of the Great Mother cluster in groups. The Furies or 
Erinyes are avengers. Without fixed shape in Homer, they first gain one 
in the Oresteia. Hesiod says the Furies sprang from drops of blood 
falling to earth from Uranus’ castration by his son Cronos. They are 
cruel chthonian emanations of the soil. The motif of seminal splashes 
recurs in Pegasus’ birth from drops of blood from Medusa’s severed 
head—suggesting the Gorgon’s half-maleness. In early ritual, throats 
were cut or blood poured directly on the field to stimulate earth’s 
fertility. The ugly, barbaric Furies are first cousin to Aphrodite. She 
comes from another seminal splashdown, from the foam cast up by 
Uranus’ castrated organs hitting the sea. It is her arrival on shore, by 
convenient seashell, that Botticelli depicts in The Birth of Venus. Aphro¬ 
dite is therefore a Fuiy washed clean of her chthonian origins. 
Aeschylus gives the Furies a doglike rheum: their eyes drip with pus. 
They are the daemonic eye as running sore, the impacted, putrefying 
womb of nature. 

The Harpies are servants of the Furies. They are “the Snatchers” 
(from harpazo , “snatch”), airborne pirates, befouling men with their 
droppings. They represent the aspect of femaleness that clutches and 
kills in order to feed itself. The archetypal power of Alfred Hitchcock’s 
great saga of malevolent nature, The Birds (1963), comes from its 
reactivation of the Harpy myth, shown as both bird and woman. Keres 
resemble Harpies as female carriers of disease and pollution. They are 
smoky intruders from the underworld. Greek art and literature never 
did crystallize a shape and story for them, so they remain vague. The 
Sirens, on the other hand, made it into the erotic big time. They are 
graveyard creatures who appear in Archaic art much like Harpies, as 
birds with female heads and male beards. Homer’s Sirens are twin 
singers luring sailors to destruction on the rocks: “They sit there in a 
meadow piled high with the mouldering skeletons of men, whose with¬ 
ered skin still hangs upon their bones.” 27 The Sirens are the triumph of 
matter. Man’s spiritual trajectory ends in the rubbish heap of his own 
mother-born body. 

Some female monsters shifted from plural to singular. Lamia, a 
bisexual Greek and Roman succubus who kidnapped children and 
drank their blood, was once one of many, like the child-killer Mormo. 
Joseph Fontenrose calls the Lamiai u phasmata that rose from earth in 
woods and glens,” while the Mormones were “wandering Simones.” 28 
Gello, another child-stealer, remains part of Greek superstition today. 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


The night-stalking vampire Empusa devoured her prey after the sex act. 
These examples catch myth midcourse. Spooks and goblins, who run in 
packs in the primeval murk, begin to emerge as personalities. But they 
must be condensed and refined by the popular imagination or by a great 

Circe owes eveiything to Homer. An Italian sorceress living among 
pigs has been gorgeously enhanced with cinematic glamour. Lordly in 
her cold stone house, Circe waves her phallic wand over her subject 
males, grunting in the slop of infancy. She is the prison of sex, a tomb in 
a thicket. Circe’s Hebrew counterpart is Lilith, Adam’s first wife, whose 
name means “of the night.” Harold Bloom says Lilith, originally a 
Babylonian wdnd-demoness, sought ascendancy in the sex act: “The 
vision men call Lilith is formed primarily by their anxiety at what they 
perceive to be the beauty of a woman’s body, a beauty they believe to be, 
at once, far greater and far less than their own.” 29 Like Aphrodite, Circe 
and Lilith are the ugly made beautiful. Nature’s Medusan hag dons her 
magic mask in the hall of art. 

Sexually dominated by him, Circe warns Odysseus of future dangers. 
Her description of Scylla has relish, for Scylla is her outdoor alter ego, a 
cliff monster with twelve feet, six heads, and triple rows of teeth who 
plucks sailors off ships. Like the Harpy, she is a Snatcher, a gnawing 
female appetite. Scylla’s female companion, Charybdis, is her upside- 
down mirror image. Sucking and spewing three times a day, the killer 
whirlpool is the womb-vortex of the nature mother. It is probably into 
Charybdis that Poe’s hero sinks in Descent into the Maelstrom, Ovid’s 
Circe stunts Scylla’s legs and girds her belly with a pack of wild dogs 
with “gaping mouths.” 30 Scylla becomes a vagina dentata or sexual she- 
wolf. At the gates of Hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost , she is Sin, the torso 
of a beautiful woman ending in a scaly serpent with a scorpion’s sting. 
Her waist is ringed with screeching hellhounds that kennel in her 
worflb. The dogs are insatiable, ulcerating lusts, like the Indian man- 
eating fish. Sexual disillusion leads to Scylla and Charybdis. King 
Lear, hanging a white beard on his witchy daughter Goneril, sees 
woman as animal-loined, a stinking “sulphurous pit” sucking men to 
hell ( 135). Attraction is repulsion, necessity bondage. 

The Great Mother’s main disciple is her son and lover, the dying god 
of Near Eastern mystery religion. Neumann says of Attis, Adonis, Tam- 
muz, and Osiris, “They are loved, slain, buried, and bewailed by her, 
and are then reborn through her.” Maleness is merely a shadow w hirled 
round in nature’s eternal cycle. The boy gods are “phallic consorts of the 
Great Mother, drones serving the queen bee, who are killed off as soon 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


as they have performed their duty of fecundation.” Mother-love smoth¬ 
ers what it embraces. The dying gods are “delicate blossoms, sym¬ 
bolized by the myths as anemones, narcissi, hyacinths, or violets.” 

The youths, who personify the spring, belong to the Great Mother. 
They are her bondslaves, her property, because they are the sons 
she has borne. Consequently the chosen ministers and priests of 
the Mother Goddess are eunuchs. . . . For her, loving, dying, and 
being emasculated are the same thing. 31 

Masculinity flows from the Great Mother as an aspect of herself and is 
recalled and cancelled by her at will. Her son is a servant of her cult. 
There is no going beyond her. Motherhood blankets existence. 

The most brilliant perception of The Golden Bough , muted by pru¬ 
dence, is Frazer’s analogy between Jesus and the dying gods. The 
Christian ritual of death and redemption is a survival of pagan mystery 
religion. Frazer says, “The type, created by Greek artists, of the sorrow¬ 
ful goddess with her dying lover in her arms, resembles and may have 
been the model of the Pieta of Christian art.” 32 Early Christian and 
Byzantine Christs were virile, but once the Church settled in Rome, 
Italy’s vestigial paganism took over. Christ relapsed into Adonis. Mi¬ 
chelangelo’s Pieta is one of the most popular works of world art partly 
because of its pagan evocation of the archetypal mother-relation. Maiy, 
with her unmarked maiden’s face, is the mother goddess ever-young 
and ever-virgin. Jesus is remarkably epicene, with aristocratic hands 
and feet of morbid delicacy. Michelangelo’s androgynous dying god 
fuses sex and religion in the pagan way. Grieving in her oppressive 
robes, Mary admires the sensual beauty of the son she has made. His 
glassy nude limbs slipping down her lap, Adonis sinks back to earth, his 
strength drained by and returned to his immortal mother. 

Freud says, “It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual 
impulse towards our mother.” 33 Incest is at the start of all biography and 
cosmogony. The man who finds his true wife has found his mother. 
Male mastery in marriage is a social illusion, nurtured by women 
exhorting their creations to play and walk. At the emotional heart of 
every marriage is a pieta of mother and son. I will find traces of the 
archaic incest of mother-cults in Poe and James and in Tennessee 
Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer ; where a queen mother, ruling a 
brutal primeval garden, marries her homosexual aesthete son, who is 
ritually slain and mourned. Female dynamism is the law of nature. 
Earth husbands herself. 

The residual paganism of western culture bursts out full flower in 


The Birth of the Western Eye 

modern show business. An odd phenomenon, over fifty years old, is the 
cultishness of male homosexuals around female superstars. There is no 
equivalent taste among lesbians, who as a group in America seem more 
interested in softball than art and artifice. The female superstar is a 
goddess, a universal mother-father. Cabaret parodies by female imper¬ 
sonators unerringly find the androgyny in the great stars. Mae West, 
Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Eartha Kitt, Carol Channing, Barbra 
Streisand, Diana Ross, Joan Collins, Joan Rivers: all are self-exalting 
females of cold male will, with subtle sexual ambiguities of manner and 
look. Judy Garland inspired mob hysteria among male homosexuals. 
Media reports speak of uncanny shrieking, mass assaults on the stage, 
blinding showers of bouquets. These were orgiastic eunuch rites at the 
shrine of the goddess. Photos show posturing men making sensational 
entrances in Garland’s glittery costume, just like transvestite devotees 
of the ancient Great Mother. Such spectacles became rarer in the 
Seventies, when American homosexuals went macho. But I sense a 
return to imaginative sensibility among younger men. Cultishness still 
thrives among homosexual opera fans, whose supreme diva was tem¬ 
pestuous Maria Callas. I interpret this phenomenon, like pornography 
and perversion, as more evidence of men’s tendency toward sexual 
conceptualization, for me a biological faculty at the roots of art. One 
result of the disease claiming so many lives is that homosexuals have 
been involuntarily rewed to their shamanistic identity, fatal, sacrificial, 
outcast. To make sexual ideas out of reality, as they did in their fevered 
cult of the female star, is more profitable to culture than to act out such 
ideas in bar or bedroom. Art advances by self-mutilation of the artist. 
The more negative homosexual experience, the more it belongs to art. 

Our first exhibit from western art is the so-called Venus of 
Willendorf, a tiny statuette (height 4V8”) from the Old Stone Age found 
in Austria (fig. 2). In it we see all the strange laws of primitive earth-cult. 
Woman is idol and object, goddess and prisoner. She is buried in the 
bulging mass of her own fecund body. 

The Venus of Willendorf is comically named, for she is unbeautiful by 
every standard. But beauty has not yet emerged as a criterion for art. In 
the Old Stone Age, art is magic, a ritual recreation of what-is-desired. 
Cave paintings were not meant to be seen. Their beauty for us is 
incidental. Bison and reindeer crowd the walls, following rock ridges 
and grooves. Art was invocation, a summoning: mother nature, let 
herds return that man might eat. Caves were the bowels of the goddess, 
and art was a sexual scribbling, an impregnation. It had rhythm and 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


2. Venus of Willendorf, 
ca. 30,000 b.c. 

vitality but no visual status. The Venus of Willendorf, a cult-image half- 
molded from a rough stone, is unbeautiful because art has not yet found 
its relation to the eye. Her fat is a symbol of abundance in an age of 
famine. She is the too-muchness of nature, which man longs to direct to 
his salvation. 

Venus of Willendorf carries her cave with her. She is blind, masked. 
Her ropes of corn-row hair look forward to the invention of agriculture. 
She has a furrowed brow. Her facelessness is the impersonality of 
primitive sex and religion. There is no psychology or identity yet, be¬ 
cause there is no society, no cohesion. Men cower and scatter at the blast 
of the elements. Venus of Willendorf is eyeless because nature can be 
seen but not known. She is remote even as she kills and creates. The 
statuette, so overflowing and protuberant, is ritually invisible. She sti¬ 
fles the eye. She is the cloud of archaic night. 

Bulging, bulbous, bubbling. Venus of Willendorf, bent over her own 
belly, tends the hot pot of nature. She is eternally pregnant. She broods, 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


in all senses. She is hen, nest, egg. The Latin mater and materia, mother 
and matter, are etymologically connected. Venus of Willendorf is the 
nature-mother as primeval muck, oozing into infant forms. She is 
female but not feminine. She is turgid with primal force, swollen with 
great expectations. She has no feet. Placed on end, she would topple 
over. Woman is immobile, weighed down by her inflated mounds of 
breast, belly, and buttock. Like Venus de Milo, Venus of Willendorf has 
no arms. They are flat flippers scratched on the stone, unevolved, 
useless. She has no thumbs and therefore no tools. Unlike man, she can 
neither roam nor build. She is a mountain that can be climbed but can 
never move. 

Venus is a solipsist, navel-gazing. Femaleness is self-referential and 
self-replicating. Delphi was called the omphalos or navel of the world, 
marked by a shapeless holy stone. A black meteorite, a primitive image 
of Cybele, was brought to Rome from Phrygia to save the city in the last 
Punic War. The Palladium, a Zeus-sent image of Athena upon which 
Troy’s fate depended, was probably such a meteorite. Today, the Kaaba, 
the inner sanctuary of the Great Mosque of Mecca, enshrines a mete¬ 
orite, the Black Stone, as the holiest relic of Islam. The Venus of Wil¬ 
lendorf is a kind of meteorite, a quirky found object, lumpish and 
mystic. The Delphic omphalos-stone was cone, womb, and beehive. 
The braided cap of Venus of Willendorf is hivelike—prefiguring the 
provocative beehives of French court wigs and shellacked swinging- 
Sixties towers. Venus buzzes to herself, queen for all days, woman for all 
seasons. She sleeps. She is hibernation and harvest, the turning wheel 
of the year. The egg-shaped Venus thinks in circles. Mind under matter. 

Sex, I said, is a descent to the nether realms, a daily sinking from sky- 
cult to earth-cult. It is abdominal, abominable, daemonic. Venus of 
Willendorf is going down, disappearing into her own labyrinth. She is a 
tuber, rooted from a pocket of earth. Kenneth Clark divides female 
nudes into the Vegetable and the Crystalline Aphrodite. Inert and self- 
communing, Venus of Willendorf represents the obstacle of sex and 
vegetable nature. It is at her shrine that we worship in oral sex. In the 
bowels of the earth mother, we feel but do not think or see. Venus 
dwindles to a double pubic delta, knees clamped and cramped in the 
sharp pelvic angle of the wide-hipped childbearing woman, which 
prevents her from running with ease. Female jiggle is the ducklike 
waddle of our wallowing Willendorf, who swims in the underground 
river of liquid nature. Sex is probings, plumbing, secretions, gushings. 
Venus is drowsing and dowsing, hearkening to the stirring in her sac of 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


Is the Venus of Willendorf just to female experience? Yes. Woman is 
trapped in her wavy, watery body. She must listen and learn from 
something beyond and yet within her. The Venus of Willendorf, blind, 
tongueless, brainless, armless, knock-kneed, seems a depressing model 
of gender. Yet woman is depressed, pressed down, by earth’s gravitation, 
calling us back to her bosom. We will see that malign magnetism at 
work in Michelangelo, one of his great themes and obsessions. In the 
west, art is a hacking away at nature’s excess. The western mind makes 
definitions. That is, it draws lines. This is the heart of Apollonianism. 
There are no lines in the Venus of Willendorf, only curves and circles. 
She is the formlessness of nature. She is mired in the miasmic swamp I 
identify with Dionysus. Life always begins and ends in squalor. The 
Venus of Willendorf, slumping, slovenly, sluttish, is in a rut, the womb- 
tomb of mother nature. Never send to know for whom the belle tolls. 
She tolls for thee. 

How did beauty begin? Earth-cult, suppressing the eye, 
locks man in the belly of mothers. There is, I insisted, nothing beautiful 
in nature. Nature is primal power, coarse and turbulent. Beauty is our 
weapon against nature; by it we make objects, giving them limit, sym¬ 
metry, proportion. Beauty halts and freezes the melting flux of nature. 

Beauty was made by men acting together. Hamlets, forts, cities 
spread across the Near East after the founding of Jericho, (ca. 8000 b.c.), 
the first known settlement in the world. But it was not until Egypt that 
art broke its enslavement to nature. High art is nonutilitarian. That is, 
the art object, though retaining its ritualism, is no longer a tool of 
something else. Beauty is the art object’s license to life. The object exists 
on its own, godlike. Beauty is the art object’s light from within. We know 
it by the eye. Beauty is our escape from the murky flesh-envelope that 
imprisons us. 

Egypt, making a state, made beauty. The reign of Chephren (fl. 2565 
B.c.) gave Egyptian art its supreme style, a tradition to last until the time 
of Christ (fig. 3). Pharaoh was the state. The concentration of power in 
one man, a living god, was a great cultural advance. A king’s emergence 
out of feuding tribal chieftains is always a step forward in history, as in 
the medieval era with its quarrelsome barons. Commerce, technology, 
and the arts profit when nationalism wins over parochialism. Egypt, the 
first totalitarian regime, made a mystique out of one-man rule. And in 
that mystique was the birth of the western eye. 

A king, ruling alone, is the head of state, as the people are the body. 
Pharaoh is a wise eye, never blinking. He unifies the scattered many. 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


The unification of upper and lower Egypt, a geographical triumph, was 
man’s first experience of concentration, condensation, conceptualiza¬ 
tion. Social order and the idea of social order emerge. Egypt is history’s 
first romance of hierarchy. Pharaoh, elevated and sublime, contem¬ 
plated life’s panorama. His eye was the sun disk at the apex of the social 
pyramid. He had point of view, an Apollonian sightline. Egypt invented 
the magic of image. The mystique of kingship had to be projected over 
thousands of miles to keep the nation together. Conceptualization and 
projection: in Egypt is forged the formalistic Apollonian line that will 
end in modem cinema, master genre of our century. Egypt invented 
glamour, beauty as power and power as beauty. Egyptian aristocrats 
were the first Beautiful People. Hierarchy and eroticism fused in Egypt, 
making a pagan unity the west has never thrown off. The eros of 
hierarchical orders, separate but mutually intrusive, is one of the west’s 
most characteristic perversions, later intensified by the Christian taboo 
upon sex. Egypt makes personality and history numinous. This idea, 
entering Europe through Greece, remains the principal distinction 
between western and eastern culture. 

A black line on a white page. The Nile, cutting through the desert, 
was the first straight line in western culture. Egypt discovered linearity, 
a phallic track of mind piercing the entanglements of nature. The thirty 
royal dynasties of Egypt were the cascading river of history. Ancient 
Egypt was a thin band of cultivated land an average of five miles wide 
but six hundred miles long. An absolutist geography produced an abso¬ 
lutist politics and aesthetics. At its height in the Old Kingdom, phara¬ 
onic power created the pyramid, a mammoth design of converging 
lines. At Giza are remnants of the elevated causeway leading up from 
the Nile past the Great Sphinx to the pyramid of Chephren. Long 
causeways, for construction crews and religious processions, were high¬ 
ways into history. Egyptian linearity cut the knot of nature; it was the 
eye shot forward into the far distance. 

The masculine art form of construction begins in Egypt. There were 
public works before, as in the fabled walls of Jericho, but they did not 
cater to the eye. In Egypt, construction is male geometry, a glorification 
of the visible. The first clarity of intelligible form appears in Egypt, the 
basis of Greek Apollonianism in art and thought. Egypt discovers four¬ 
square architecture, a rigid grid laid against mother nature’s melting 
ovals. Social order becomes a visible aesthetic, countering nature’s 
chthonian invisibilities. Pharaonic construction is the perfection of 
matter in art. Fascist political power, grandiose and self-divinizing, 
creates the hierarchical, categorical superstructure of western mind. 


The Birth of the Western Eye 

Pyramids are man-mountains to rival nature, ladders to the sun of sky- 
cult. Colossalism, monumentality. The ideal human figure in Egypt is a 
pillar, an element of architecture and geometry. The gigantism of pro- 
creative nature has been masculinized and hardened. Egypt had little 
wood but lots of stone. Stone makes an art of permanence. The body is 
an obelisk, square, phallic, sky-pointing, an Apollonian line defying 
time and organic change. 

Egyptian art is glyptic, that is, carved or engraved. It is based on the 
incised edge, which I identify as the Apollonian element in western 
culture. Stone is obdurate, unregenerate nature. The incised edge is the 
line drawn between nature and culture. It is the steely autograph of the 
western will. We will find the sharp Apollonian contour in psychology 
as well as art. Western personality is hard, impermeable, intractable. 
Spengler says “the brilliant polish of the stone in Egyptian art” makes 
the eye “glide” along the statue surface . 34 The west’s armoured ego 
begins in the shiny stone idealizations of Old Kingdom Pharaohs, objets 
d'art and objets de culte. The green diorite statue of enthroned Cheph- 
ren from Giza is a masterpiece of smooth, glossy, Apollonian definitive- 
ness. Its hardness of surface repels the-eye. This masculine hardness is 
an abolition of female interiority. There are no warm womb-spaces in 
aristocratic Egyptian art. The body is a shaft of frozen Apollonian will. 
The flatness of Egyptian wall-painting and relief serves the same func¬ 
tion, obliterating woman’s inner darkness. Every angle of the body is 
crisp, clean, and sunlit. Sagging maternal breasts of the Willendorf kind 
usually appear, oddly enough, only on male fertility gods like Hapi, the 
Nile god. Egypt is the first to glamourize small breasts. The breast as 
vernal adornment rather than rubbery milk sac, outline rather than 
volume: Apollonian Egypt made the first shift of value from femaleness 
to femininity, an advanced erotic art form. 

Chthonian intemality, as we shall see, was projected into the world of 
the dead. But Egypt also translated inner space into entirely social 
terms. Egypt invented interior decor, civilized living; it made beauty out 
of social life. The Egyptians were the first aesthetes. An aesthete does 
not necessarily dress well or collect art works: an aesthete is one who 
lives by the eye. The Egyptians had “taste.” Taste is Apollonian discrimi¬ 
nation, judgment, connoisseurship; taste is the visible logic of objects. 
Arnold Hauser says of the Middle Kingdom, “The stiffly ceremonial 
forms of courtly art are absolutely new and come into prominence here 
for the first time in the history of human culture .” 35 The Egyptians lived 
by ceremony; they ritualized social life. The aristocratic house was a 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


cool, airy temple of harmony and grace; the minor arts had unparalleled 
quality of design. Jewelry, makeup, costume, chairs, tables, cabinets: 
from the moment Egyptian style was rediscovered by Napoleon’s invad¬ 
ers, it has been the rage in Europe and America, influencing fashion, 
furniture, and tombstones and even producing the Washington Monu¬ 
ment. Artifacts from other Near Eastern cultures—the golden bull’s lyre 
from Ur, for example—seem cluttered, bulky, muscle-bound. In their 
cult of the eye, the Egyptians saw edges. Even their stylized gestures in 
art have a superb balletic contour. The Egyptians invented elegance. 
Elegance is reduction, simplification, condensation. It is spare, stark, 
sleek. Elegance is cultivated abstraction. The source of Greek and 
Roman classicism—clarity, order, proportion, balance—is in Egypt. 

Egypt remains unabsorbed by humanistic education. Though its art 
and history are taught, it is taken far less seriously than Greece. The 
thinness of Egyptian literature keeps it out of core curricula. The super¬ 
stition of Egyptian religion repels the rational, and the autocracy of 
Egyptian politics repels the liberal. But Egypt’s power to fascinate 
endures, alluring poets, artists, actresses, and fanatics. Egyptian high 
culture was more complex and conceptual than has been acknowl¬ 
edged. It is underestimated because of the moralistic obsession with 
language that has dominated modem academic thought. Words are not 
the only measure of mental development. To believe that they are is a 
very western or Judeo-Christian illusion. It stems from our invisible 
God, who talks creation into existence. Words are the most removed of 
human inventions from things-as-they-are. The most ancient conflict in 
western culture, between Jew and Egyptian, continues today: Hebrew 
word-worship versus pagan imagism, the great unseen versus the glori¬ 
fied thing. The Egyptians were visionary materialists. They began the 
western line of Apollonian aestheticism that we see in the Iliad , in 
Pheidias, Botticelli, Spenser, Ingres, Wilde, and Hollywood cinema. 
Apollonian things are the cold western eye cut out of nature. 

Egyptian culture flourished relatively unchanged for three thousand 
years, far longer than Greek culture. Stagnancy, a stultifying lack of 
individualism, says the humanist. But Egyptian culture lasted because 
it was stable and complete. It worked. The Apollonian element in Egypt 
is so pronounced that the idea of “classical” antiquity should be revised 
to contain it. Egypt and the ancient Near East were also the source of 
the Dionysian countercurrent in Greek culture. In Greece Apollo and 
Dionysus were at odds, but in Egypt they were reconciled. Egyptian 
culture was a fusion of the conceptual with the chthonian, the form- 


The Birth of the Western Eye 

making of consciousness with the shadowy flux of procreative nature. 
Day and night were equally honored. Here alone in the world were sky- 
cult and earth-cult yoked and harmonized. 

Fertility religion always comes first in history. But as the food problem 
is solved, nature’s moral and aesthetic incoherence gradually becomes 
apparent. Egypt evolved into the sun-worship of sky-cult without ever 
losing its orientation toward the earth. This was because of the Nile, 
center of the Egyptian economy. Each year the river flooded and re¬ 
ceded, leaving a plain of rich black mud; each year the hard went soft, 
earth turned liquid. John Read says alchemy probably began in Egypt, 
since Khem was the ancient name of Egypt, “the country of dark soil, 
the Biblical Land of Ham .” 36 Metamorphosis is the chthonian magic of 
shapeshifting Dionysus. The fertile muck was the primeval matrix, with 
which Egyptians came into annual contact. The Apollonian is chaste 
contour, borderlines: the Nile, transgressing its borders with majestic 
regularity, was the triumph of mother nature. Egypt’s ideology of sun 
and stone rested on chthonian ooze, the swamp of generation I identify 
with Dionysus. The oscillations of the Egyptian calendar produced a 
fruitful duality of point of view, one of the greatest constructs of western 

Chthonian mysteries are the secret of Egypt’s perennial fascination. 
The gross and barbaric proliferated. A dung-beetle, the scarab, was 
worshipped and worn as a gemstone. The scarab was minister of na¬ 
ture’s decay, the bath of dissolution. Egyptian literature was unde¬ 
veloped because intemality was preempted by the death-cult. There 
was only one ethical principle, justice ( maat ), a public virtue above 
ground or below. Spirituality was projected into the afterlife. The Book 
of the Dead was daemonic thought, ruminations, earth-chawings. The 
mummy, swaddled like an infant, returned to nature’s womb for rebirth. 
The painted tomb was cave art, prayers to daemonic darkness. Egyptian 
culture was both earth-tending and earth-rejecting. Herodotus reports 
Egyptian men urinated like women. Egyptian gods were incompletely 
emerged from prehistoric animism. They were monstrous hybrids, half 
human and half animal or animal joined to animal. E. A. Wallis Budge 
says the Egyptians clung to their “composite creatures” despite the 
ridicule of foreigners . 37 One god had a serpent head on a leopard body, 
another a hawk head on the body of a lion and horse; still another was a 
crocodile with the body of a lion and hippopotamus. Chthonian energy, 
like the Nile, is overflow and superfetation. The logic and rigor of the 
Apollonian eye had to defeat Egypt’s fuzzy tribal fetishism. 

The Egyptian synthesis of chthonian and Apollonian was of enor- 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


4. Stele of the Overseer of Magazine of Amon, Nib-Amun, and his wife , Huy, 
Eighteenth Dynasty. 

mous consequence for western tradition. It was in the interplay between 
earth and sky that idealized form began. Western personality is an 
Egyptian objet d’art, an exclusive zone of aristocratic privilege. The 
cartouche, a closed oval, surrounds a hieroglyphic name. In early Egyp¬ 
tian art, a serekh or square palace fagade signified kingship. Cartouche 
and serekh are symbols of hierarchic sequestration, a closing in of the 
holy and royal to exclude the profane. They are a temenos , the Greek 
word for the sacred precinct around a temple. The reserved space of the 
cartouche is analogous to the wedjat , the apotropaic eye of Horns 
studding so many amulets and hieroglyphic displays (fig. 4). The Egyp¬ 
tian eye is synonymous with western personality. Because the soul was 
thought to reside there, the eye is always shown full face, flounderlike, 
even when the head is in painted profile. The eye is licensed in Egypt. 

6 4 

The Birth of the Western Eye 

That is, it is released but ritually bound. The glamourous black-tailed 
outline of Egyptian eye-makeup is a hieratic accent, both fish and 
fence. It contains and blocks out. Egypt honored the earth but also 
feared it. The pure, clean Apollonian contour of Egyptian art is a 
defense against chthonian muck and muddle. Egypt created the dis¬ 
tance between eye and object which is a hallmark of western philosophy 
and aesthetics. That distance is a charged force field, a dangerous 
temenos. Egypt created Apollonian objects out of chthonian fear. The 
western line of Apollonian thing-making, from Homer’s bronzed war¬ 
riors to capitalist cars and cans, begins in the Egyptian caged eye. 

One of the most misunderstood features of Egyptian life 
was the veneration of cats, whose mummified bodies have been found 
by the thousands. My theory is that the cat was the model for Egypt’s 
unique synthesis of principles (fig. 5). The modem cat, the last animal 
domesticated by man, descends from Felis lybica, a North African 
wildcat. Cats are prowlers, uncanny creatures of the night. Cruelty and 
play are one for them. They live by and for fear, practicing being scared 
or spooking humans by sudden rushings and ambushes. Cats dwell in 
the occult, that is, the “hidden.” In the Middle Ages, they were hunted 
and killed for their association with witches. Unfair? But the cat really is 
in league with chthonian nature, Christianity’s mortal enemy. The 
black cat of Halloween is the lingering shadow of archaic night. Sleep¬ 
ing up to twenty of every twenty-four hours, cats reconstruct and inhabit 
the primitive night-world. The cat is telepathic—or at least thinks that it 
is. Many people are unnerved by its cool stare. Compared to dogs, 
slavishly eager to please, cats are autocrats of naked self-interest. They 
are both amoral and immoral, consciously breaking rules. Their “evil” 
look at such times is no human projection: the cat may be the only 
animal who savors the perverse or reflects upon it. 

Thus the cat is an adept of chthonian mysteries. But it has a hieratic 
duality. It is eye-intense. The cat fuses the Gorgon eye of appetite to the 
detached Apollonian eye of contemplation. The cat values invisibility, 
comically imagining itself undetectable as it slouches across a lawn. But 
it also fashionably loves to see and be seen; it is a spectator of life’s 
drama, amused, condescending. It is a narcissist, always adjusting its 
appearance. When it is disheveled, its spirits fall. Cats have a sense of 
pictorial composition: they station themselves symmetrically on chairs, 
rugs, even a sheet of paper on the floor. Cats adhere to an Apollonian 
metric of mathematical space. Haughty, solitary, precise, they are arbi¬ 
ters of elegance—that principle I find natively Egyptian. 

The Birth of the Western Eye 

5. Cat Goddess with One Gold 
Earring , Late Dynastic. 

Cats are poseurs. They have a sense of persona —and become visibly 
embarrassed when reality punctures their dignity. Apes are more hu¬ 
man but less beautiful: they posture but never pose. Hunkering, chat¬ 
tering, chest-beating, buttock-baring, apes are bumptious vulgarians 
lurching up the evolutionary road. The cat’s sophisticated personae are 
masks of an advanced theatricality. Priest and god of its own cult, the cat 
follows a code of ritual purity, cleaning itself religiously. It makes pagan 
sacrifices to itself and may share its ceremonies with the elect. The day 
of a cat-owner often begins with the discovery of a neat pile of mole guts 
or mashed mouse limbs on the porch—Darwinian mementos. The cat 
is the least Christian inhabitant of the average home. 

In Egypt the cat; in Greece the horse. The Greeks did not care for 
cats. They admired the horse and used it constantly in art and meta¬ 
phor. The horse is an athlete, proud but serviceable. It accepts citizen¬ 
ship in a public system. The cat is a law unto itself. It has never lost its 
despotic air of Oriental luxury and indolence. It was too feminine for 
the male-loving Greeks. I spoke of Egypt’s invention of femininity, an 
aesthetic of social practice removed from nature’s brutal female ma¬ 
chinery. Aristocratic Egyptian women’s costume, an exquisite tunic of 
transparent pleated linen, must be called slinky , a word we still use for 
formfitting evening gowns. Slinkiness is the nocturnal stealth of cats. 


The Birth of the Western Eye 

The Egyptians admired sleekness, in greyhounds, jackals, and hawks. 
Sleekness is smooth Apollonian contour. But slinkiness is the sinuous 
craft of daemonic darkness, which the cat carries into day. 

Cats have secret thoughts, a divided consciousness. No other animal 
is capable of ambivalence , those ambiguous cross-currents of feeling, as 
when a purring cat simultaneously buries its teeth wamingly in one’s 
arm. The inner drama of a lounging cat is telegraphed by its ears, which 
swerve round toward a distant rustle as its eyes rest with false adoration 
on ours, and secondly by its tail, which flicks menacingly even while the 
cat dozes. Sometimes the cat pretends to have no relation to its own tail, 
which it schizophrenically attacks. The twitching, thumping tail is the 
chthonian barometer of the cat’s Apollonian world. It is the serpent in 
the garden, bumping and grinding with malice aforethought. The cat’s 
ambivalent duality is dramatized in erratic mood-swings, abrupt leaps 
from torpor to mania, by which it checks our presumption: “Come no 
closer. I can never be known.” 

Thus the Egyptian veneration of cats was neither silly nor childish. 
Through the cat, Egypt defined and refined its complex aesthetic. The 
cat was the symbol of that fusion of chthonian and Apollonian which no 
other culture achieved. The west’s eye-intense pagan line begins in 
Egypt, as does the hard persona of art and politics. Cats cure exemplars 
of both. The crocodile, also honored in Egypt, resembles the cat in its 
daily passage between two realms: hefting itself between water and 
earth, the spiky crocodile is the west’s armoured ego, sinister, hostile, 
and ever-watchful. The cat is a time-traveller from ancient Egypt. It 
returns whenever sorcery or style is in vogue. In the Decadent aestheti¬ 
cism of Poe and Baudelaire, the cat regains its sphinxlike prestige and 
magnitude. With its taste for ritual and bloody spectacle, conspiracy 
and exhibitionism, the cat is pure pagan pomp. Uniting nocturnal 
primitivism to Apollonian elegance of line, it became the living para¬ 
digm of Egyptian sensibility. The cat, fixing its swift predatory energy in 
poses of Apollonian stasis, was the first to enact the frozen moment of 
perceptual stillness that is high art. 

Our second exhibit from western art is the bust of Nefertiti 
(figs. 6 and 7). How familiar it is, and yet how strange. Nefertiti is the 
opposite of the Venus of Willendorf. She is the triumph of Apollonian 
image over the humpiness and horror of mother earth. Everything fat, 
slack, and sleepy is gone. The western eye is open and alert. It has 
forced objects into their frozen frame. But the liberation of the eye has 
its price. Taut, still, and truncated, Nefertiti is western ego under glass. 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


6. Nefertiti (copy). 



The radiant glamour of this supreme sexual persona comes to us from a 
palace-prison, the overdeveloped brain. Western culture, moving up 
toward Apollonian sunlight, discards one burden only to stagger under 

The bust, found by a German expedition at Amama in 1912, dates 
from the reign of Akhenaten (1375—57 b.c.). Queen Nefertiti, wife of 
the Pharaoh, wears a wig-crown peculiar to the eighteenth dynasty and 
seen elsewhere only on Akhenaten’s formidable mother, Queen Tiy. 
The bust is painted limestone with plaster additions; the eye is inset 
rock crystal. The ears and uraeus, the royal serpent on the brow, are 
broken. Scholars have debated whether the piece is a studio model for 
court artists. 

The Nefertiti bust is one of the most popular art works in the world. It 
is printed on scarves and molded in necklace pendants and coffee-table 
miniatures. But never in my experience is the bust exactly reproduced. 
The copyist softens it, feminizes and humanizes it. The actual bust is 
intolerably severe. It is too uncanny an object for domestic display. Even 
art books lie. The bust is usually posed in profile or at an angle, so that 
the missing left pupil is hidden or shadowed. What happened to the 
eye? Perhaps it was unnecessary in a model and never inserted. But the 
eye was often chiseled out of statues and paintings of the dead. It was a 


The Birth of the Western Eye 

7. Nefertiti, ca. 1350 b.c. 

way of making a hated rival a nonperson and extinguishing his or her 
survival in the afterlife. Akhenaten’s reign was divisive. His creation of a 
new capital and efforts to crush the powerful priesthood, his establish¬ 
ment of monotheism and innovations in artistic style were nullified 
under his son-in-law, Tutankhamen, the short-lived boy-king. Nefertiti 
may have lost her eye in the wreck of the eighteenth dynasty. 

As we have it, the bust of Nefertiti is artistically and ritualistically 
complete, exalted, harsh, and alien. It fuses the naturalism of the 
Amama period with the hieratic formalism of Egyptian tradition. But 
Amama expressiveness ends in the grotesque. This is the least consol¬ 
ing of great art works. Its popularity is based on misunderstanding and 
suppression of its unique features. The proper response to the Nefertiti 
bust is fear. The queen is an android, a manufactured being. She is a 
new gorgoneion, a “bodiless head of fright.” She is paralyzed and 
paralyzing. Like enthroned Chephren, Nefertiti is suave, urbane. She 

The Birth of the Western Eye 

gazes toward the far distance, seeing what is best for her people. But her 
eyes, with their catlike rim of kohl, are cold. She is self-divinized 
authority. Art shows Akhenaten half-feminine, his limbs shrunken and 
belly bulging, possibly from birth defect or disease. This portrait shows 
his queen half-masculine, a vampire of political will. Her seductive 
force both lures in and warns away. She is western personality barri¬ 
caded behind its aching, icy line of Apollonian identity. 

Nefertiti’s head is so massive it threatens to snap the neck like a stalk. 
She is like a papyrus blossom swaying on its river reed. The head is 
swollen to the point of deformity. She seems futuristic, with the en¬ 
larged cerebrum foreseen as the destiny of our species. The crown is 
filled like a funnel with a rain of hierarchic energy, flooding the fragile 
brain-pan and violently pushing the face forward like the prow of a ship. 
Nefertiti is like the Winged Victory of Samothrace, garments plastered 
back by the wind of history. As cargo, Nefertiti carries her own excess of 
thought. She is weighed down by Apollonian wakefulness, a sun that 
never sets. Egypt invented the pillar, which Greece would refine. With 
her slim aristocratic neck, Nefertiti is a pillar, a caryatid. She bears the 
burden of state upon her head, rafters of the temple of the sun. The 
golden brow-band is a ritual bridle, squeezing, constricting, limiting. 
Nefertiti presides from the temenos of power, a sacred precinct she can 
never leave. 

Venus of Willendorf is all body, Nefertiti all head. Her shoulders have 
been cut away by radical surgery. Early in its history, Egypt invented the 
bust, a portrait style still in use. It may have been a robust double, the ka 
that enters and exits through false doors. The shoulders of the Nefertiti 
bust have shriveled to become their own pedestal. No physical force 
remains. The queen’s body is bound and invisible, like a mummy. Her 
face gleams with the newness of rebirth. Tense with self-creation, she is 
a goddess as mother-father. The pregnancy of Venus of Willendorf is 
displaced upward and redefined. Willendorf is chthonian belly-magic, 
Nefertiti Apollonian head-magic. Thinking makes it so. Nefertiti is a 
royal highness, propelling herself like a jet into sky-cult. Forward 
thrust. Nefertiti leads with her chin. She has “great bones.” She is 
Egyptian stone architecture, just as Venus of Willendorf is earthen 
ovals, woman as quivering poached egg. Nefertiti is femaleness made 
mathematical, femaleness sublimized by becoming harder and more 

I said Egypt invented elegance, which is reduction, simplification, 
condensation. Mother nature is addition and multiplication, but Nefer¬ 
titi is subtraction. Visually, she has been reduced to her essence. Her 

7 o 

The Birth of the Western Eye 

sleek contoured face is one step from the wizened. She is abbreviation, a 
symbol or pictogram, a pure idea of pagan pictorialism. One can never 
be too rich or too thin, decreed the Duchess of Windsor. I said the idea 
of beauty is based on enormous exclusions. So much is excluded from 
the Nefertiti bust that we can feel its silhouette straining against the 
charged atmosphere, a combat of Apollonian line. The name Nefertiti 
means “The Beautiful One Cometh.” Her haughty face is carved out of 
the chaos of nature. Beauty is a state of war, a frigid blank zone under 

Nefertiti is ritualized western personality, a streamlined thing. She is 
forbiddingly clean. Her eyebrows are shaved and redrawn with male 
width and frown. She is as depilated as a priest. She has the face of a 
mannequin, static, posed, self-proffering. Her knowingness is both fash¬ 
ionable and hieratic. The modern mannequin of window or runway is 
an androgyne, because she is femaleness impersonalized by masculine 
abstraction. If a studio model, the Nefertiti bust is as much a manne¬ 
quin as the royal dummy of a London tailor shop. As queen and manne¬ 
quin, Nefertiti is both exposed and enclosed, a face and a mask. She is 
naked yet armoured, experienced yet ritually pure. She is sexually 
unapproachable because bodiless: her torso is gone; her full lips invite 
but remain firmly pressed together. Her perfection is for display, not for 
use. Akhenaten and his queen would greet their court from a balcony, 
the “window of appearance.” All art is a window of appearance. Nefer- 
titi’s face is the sun of consciousness rising over a new horizon, the 
frame or mathematical grid of man’s victory over nature. The idolatrous 
thingness of western art is a theft of authority from mother nature. 

Nefertiti’s mismatched eyes, deliberate or accidental, are a symbol 
of Egyptian duality. Like the cat, she sees in and sees out. She is 
frozen Apollonian poseur and Gorgonesque daemonic seer. The Greek 
Graiai, three old divine sisters, had one eye that they passed from hand 
to hand. Fontenrose connects this to the double pupil of a Lydian 
queen: “What she had it seems to me, was a removable eye of won¬ 
drous power. It was an eye that could penetrate the invisible.” 38 Nefer¬ 
titi, the half-blind mannequin, sees more by being less. Mutilation is 
mystic expansion. Modern copyists suppress the missing eye because it 
is fatal to popular canons of beauty. Maimed eyes seem mad or spectral, 
as in the veiled vulture’s eye of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart . Nefertiti is a 
mutant and visionary materialist, a thing that sees. In Egypt, matter is 
made numinous by the first electricity of mind. In the Egyptian cult of 
seeing, Nefertiti is thought in flight from its origins. 

From Venus of Willendorf to Nefertiti: from body to face, touch to 

The Birth of the Western Eye 


sight, love to judgment, nature to society. Nefertiti is like Athena born 
from the brow of Zeus, a head-heavy armoured goddess. She is beauti¬ 
ful but desexed. She is hieratic decorum and reserve, her head literally a 
reservoir of containment and curtailment, like her stunted torso. Hex 
ponderous, ostentatious crown is the cold breeding ground of Greek 
categorical thought. Her tight brow-band is stringency, rigor, channeled 
ideas. The miasmic cloud of mother nature has lifted. Nefertiti’s imper¬ 
ious jutting face is the cutting edge of western conceptualization and 
projection. In her profile, all roads lead to the eye. From the side, 
diagonals converge in peaking vectors of force. From the front, she 
rears up like a cobra head, woman as royal intimidator. She is the eye- 
intense west, the overenlargement and grandiosity of head-culture. The 
bust of Nefertiti is eye-pleasing but oppressive. It looks forward to 
Bellini’s androgynous Doge Loredan, to Neapolitan silver reliquary 
busts, to Fifties fantasy drawings of smiling armless women in chic 
evening gowns. Authority, good will, aloofness, asceticism. Epiphany as 
a totem of vibrating passivity. With her welcoming but uncanny smile, 
Nefertiti is western personality in its ritual bonds. Exquisite and artifi¬ 
cial, she is mind-made image forever caught in radiant Apollonian 

Apollo and Dionysus 

The Greek gods are sharp personalities, interacting in 
dramatic space. Their visualization was first achieved by blind Homer, 
in his epic arcs of cinematic light. Homer’s conceptions were confirmed 
by Pheidias, the great sculptor of high classic Athens, from which came 
the cold white monoliths of Roman art and architecture. 

In Egypt, sky-cult and earth-cult were harmonized, but in Greece 
there is a split. Greek greatness is Apollonian. The gods live on a peak 
touching the sky. Olympus and Parnassus are mountain shrines of cre¬ 
ative power spuming the earth. In that swerve upward is the sublime 
conceptualism of western intellect and art. Egypt gave Greece the pil¬ 
lar and monumental sculpture, which Greece turns from Pharaoh to 
kouros , from divine king to divine boy. Hidden in these gifts lay Egypt’s 
Apollonianism, which Greek artists so splendidly develop. The orderly 
mathematic of the Doric temple is an orchestration of Egyptian ideas. 
Pheidias brings person and building together on the Acropolis or High 
City, Athens’ magic mountain. Egypt invented clarity of image, the 
essence of Apollonianism. From Old Kingdom Pharaohs to Pheidias is 
two thousand years but one step in the history of art. Greek sky-cult is 
an Egyptian colonnade of stony things , the hard, harsh blocks of west¬ 
ern personality. 

In Judeo-Christianity man is made in God’s image, but in Greek 
religion God is made in man’s image. The Greek gods have a higher hu¬ 
man beauty, their flesh incorruptible yet sensual. Greece, unlike Egypt, 
never worshipped beast gods. Greek sky-cult kept nature in her place. 
The visibility of the Greek gods is intellectual, symbolizing mind’s 
victory over matter. Art, a glorification of matter, wins its independence 
in the gods’ perfection. We know the name of no artist before signed 
Archaic pottery of sixth-centuiy Greece. The artist in Egypt was merely 
an anonymous artisan, which he became again in Rome and the Middle 
Ages. Judaism repressed art and the artist, reserving creativity for its 


Apollo and Dionysus 


fabricator God. The Greek gods, well-made but not making, float like 
golden solids in air. 

Jane Harrison calls the Olympians “objets d’art ” 1 Their brilliant 
clarity and glittering chastity of form are Apollonian. In psychology, 
philosophy, and art, classical Greek imagination sought, in Eduard 
Fraenkel’s words, “Xoyos, ratio . . . the intelligible, determinate, men¬ 
surable, as opposed to the fantastic, vague, and shapeless.” 2 The Apol¬ 
lonian, I said, is the line drawn against nature. For Harrison, the 
Olympian gods are patriarchal betrayers of earth-cult and mother na¬ 
ture. The chthonian is her test of authenticity and spiritual value. But I 
say there is neither person, thought, thing, nor art in the brutal chtho¬ 
nian. It was, ironically, the west’s Apollonian line that produced the 
matchless Jane Harrison. 

Nietzsche calls Apollo “the marvellous divine image of the prin- 
cipium individuationis ,” “god of individuation and just boundaries.” 3 
The Apollonian borderline separates demes, districts, ideas, persons. 
Western individuation is Apollonian. The western ego is finite, articu¬ 
lated, visible. Apollo is the integrity and unity of western personality, a 
firm-outlined shape of sculptural definitiveness. Apollo lays down the 
law. W. K. C. Guthrie says, “Apollo was first and foremost the patron of 
the legal or statutory aspect of religion.” 4 Apollo links society and 
religion. He is fabricated form. He is exclusion and exclusiveness. I will 
argue that the Olympians as objets d'art symbolize social order. Roger 
Hinks says: “Olympian religion is essentially a religion of the success¬ 
ful, comfortable, and healthy ruling-class. The downtrodden peasant, 
harassed by the necessities of keeping body and soul together in a 
naturally unfruitful land, crippled by debt and social injustice, asked 
something very different of his gods: the Olympians bore a discouraging 
resemblance to his oppressors.” 5 Aristocracy is aboveness. The Olym¬ 
pians are authoritarian and repressive. What they repress is the mon¬ 
strous gigantism of chthonian nature, that murky night-world from 
which society must be reclaimed day by day. 

Greek art transformed Apollo from the virile bearded god to a beauti¬ 
ful young man or ephebe. He was once a wolf god: Apollo Lukeios, the 
Wolfish Apollo, gave his name to the academic Lyceum, literally “Place 
of Wolves.” Apollo’s wolfishness survives in his severity and austerity, 
his Doric plainness and rigor. The Dorians, who invaded Greece from 
the north in the twelfth century b.c., may have been blonde, recalled in 
Homer’s red-haired Menelaus. I think Apollonian light turned again 
into blondeness, one of Europe’s racist motifs, glamourized in Botticelli 
and the Apollonian Faerie Queene. Blondeness is Apollo’s wolfish cold- 


Apollo and Dionysus 

ness and conceptualism. It made its mark on our centuiy in Hitler’s 
homoerotic Aryanism and in the icy eye-spear of black and white 
Apollonian cinema. By the early fifth century, Greek art purged both 
chthonian and single-sex elements from the major Olympians. Only the 
brothers Zeus and Poseidon retained their full beards and burly torsos. 
The ephebic androgyny of the high classic Apollo turned into effemi¬ 
nacy in Hellenistic art. 

Apollo’s latent transsexualism is partly evident in his connection to 
his twin sister, Artemis. Mythological twins are normally male, as in 
battling brothers from Egyptian Set and Osiris to Lewis Carroll’s Twee¬ 
dledum and Tweedledee. Apollo and Artemis represent not conflict but 
consonance. They are mirror images, male and female versions of one 
personality, a motif not returning until the incestuous brother-sister 
pairs of Romanticism. The fraternal androgynes Apollo and Artemis 
are, with Athena, the most militant of Olympians in the war against 
chthonian nature. Jane Harrison resents their twinship, deriving their 
“barren relation of sister and brother” from the early hierarchy of Great 
Mother over son-lover. 6 

Artemis thwarts the gross fecundities of earth-cult. Euripides’ Hippo- 
lytus, her celibate devotee, is destroyed by jealous Aphrodite, who 
unleashes the monsters of chthonian nature. Walter Otto calls Apollo 
and Artemis “the most sublime of the Greek gods,” distinguished by 
their “purity and holiness,” the root meaning of the name Phoebus: “In 
both deities there is something mysterious and unapproachable, some¬ 
thing that commands an awed distance. As archers they shoot uner¬ 
ringly and unseen from afar.” 7 The coldness of Apollo and Artemis is so 
intense it bums like fire. Apollo’s amours are late fables. At his most 
characteristic, as on the temple pediment at Olympia, he stands alone 
(fig. 8). Artemis is pre-Christian chastity, overlooked by those who 
stereotyped paganism as sexual license. Her supposed infatuation with 
Endymion belongs to the moon goddess Selene, with whom she was 
falsely identified in the Hellenistic era. Moon worship is Near Eastern, 
not Greek. Like her twin, Artemis is a beam of blinding Apollonian 

The Greeks popularly connected Artemis’ name, which has no appar¬ 
ent Greek root, with artamos , “slaughterer, butcher.” Early Artemis was 
Potnia Theron, the dread Mistress of the Beasts, as the Iliad calls her. 
Archaic art shows her standing between heraldic animals, which she 
strangles with each hand. She rules them and she slays them. A rem¬ 
nant of Proto-Artemis survived in the Ephesian Artemis, whose temple 
in Asia Minor was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (fig. 9). 

Apollo and Dionysus 


8. Apollo and the Combat of Centaurs and Lapiths (detail), from the west 
pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, 465—457 b.c. 

It was to the great port of Ephesus that St. Paul travelled with Mary, who 
died there. The Madonna is a spiritual correction of Ephesian Artemis, 
symbol of animal nature. A copy of the idol was brought to Rome to 
stand in the Temple of Diana on the Aventine Hill. Its mummiform 
torso is covered with bull testicles or breasts in canine profusion. Ephe¬ 
sian Artemis is the swarming hive of mother nature, that heavy apple 
tree foaming with fruit which I found, in human terms, so repellent. 


Apollo and Dionysus 

The descent of Artemis the huntress from the Great Mother accounts 
for the puzzling fact that she, a virgin, rules over childbirth and is 
invoked by women in labor. The Greek Artemis substitutes androgy¬ 
nous twinship for the Asian Artemis’ androgynous fecundity. Hellenis¬ 
tic art gradually merged the faces and genders of brother and sister. The 
Greek Artemis is a sexual persona, a projected personality. The nar¬ 
rowest of the major Olympians, she is a condensation of their Apollo¬ 
nian character. She is rigidly visible. Artemis’ mystique of virginity is 
very western. Indeed, her sexual absolutism makes her one of the most 
western of personae, for which there is no counterpart in other cultures. 
Chastity is visibility in Artemis. Her superb authority as a female per- 


Apollo and Dionysus 


sona comes from her resistance to nature’s sexual flux. Her cleanliness 
of contour is the bold line of pagan pictorialism. 

Artemis is the Amazon of Olympus. Amazon legends were pre- 
Homeric. Theseus, it was said, drove off an Amazon invasion from 
Athens, with the Areopagus the site of victory and the women’s en¬ 
campment afterward called the Amazonium. The battle of Greeks and 
Amazons was one of the great themes of Greek art, as on the western 
metope of the Parthenon. The Amazonomachia, or Amazon contest, 
symbolized the struggle of civilization against barbarism. It was used as 
a metaphor for the Persian Wars, rarely otherwise documented in sur¬ 
viving monuments. Perhaps there was malicious humor in portraying 
the effete Persians as masculine women. The Amazons may have been 
beardless Asian males with braided hair who from a distance appeared 
to be women. The Amazon homeland was Scythia, the Black Sea region 
of southern Russia later linked with sexually ambiguous shamans. 
Until the fifth century b.c., when they donned the short tunic of runner 
and huntress, Amazons appeared in Greek art in Scythian trousers, 
boots, and Phrygian cap. 

Controversy continues about whether the Amazons were historical or 
mythical. Bodies of women in armour have been unearthed in Germany 
and Russia, but there is still no evidence of autonomous female military 
units. The Greeks derived the name Amazon from amazos , “breast¬ 
less.” The Amazon was said to cut or pinch off her right breast to draw 
the bowstring. This etymology may have been invented to explain a 
word which was in fact amaza, “without barley bread” (cognate with 

I “matzoh,” unleavened bread). The persistent motif of the amputated 
breast may be connected to breast-amputation in rites of the great 
goddesses of Asia Minor. One theory about Ephesian Artemis was that 
she was strung with garlands of sacrificed breasts. Amazons were the 
legendary founders of both the city and temple of Ephesus. 

Many have wondered why Greek art never shows the Amazon with 
breast cut off. My answer is that deformity or mutilation of any kind was 
contrary to the idealizing classical imagination and the hyperdeveloped 
Greek sense of form. True or false, the tale illustrates the Greek view of 
the Amazon as an androgyne. Breast-amputation, as in Lady Macbeth’s 
desire to “unsex” herself, is equivalent to male castration. The Ama¬ 
zon’s torso is half male, half female. The same idea appears in depic¬ 
tions of the Amazon with one breast bared. The great Greek sculptors 
competitively tackled the theme Dying Amazon, where the warrior lifts 
one arm above her chest wound. Vergil’s Amazon Camilla is slain by a 
javelin beneath the exposed breast. The Amazonian motif recurs in 

Apollo and Dionysus 


Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People , where a flag-waving citizeness 
with one breast bare leaps the barricades. Amazonian exposure of the 
breast paradoxically desexualizes. 

Greek epithets illustrate the Amazon’s ferocity. She is called mega- 
thumos , dauntless, fearless; mnesimache , war-lustful; anandros , living 
without men; styganor, man-hating; androdamas , man-subduing; kreo- 
botos , flesh-devouring; androdaiktos , androktonos , deianeira, man- 
murdering. Amazons are at eternal war with men. Their defeat pre¬ 
figured the absolute power of husband over wife in classical Athens, 
where women had no civil rights. Greek art never shows the Amazon as 
a hulking Gorgon. She gained grace and dramatic dignity through the 
code of arete y the Greek quest for honor and fame. The Amazon was 
later vulgarized by sex. Ovid makes her a woman of fanatical sexual 
refusal laid low by man’s phallic sword. Pope uses the idea in The Rape 
of the Lock , where spiteful Amazons make a drawing-room charge on a 
pack of foppish beaux. The Amazon’s sole moment of real distinction 
after Greek art is in Renaissance epic, in the woman warriors of Boi- 
ardo, Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser. But as we shall see, the English 
Renaissance too subdued the Amazon to social frames of reference. 

The Amazon is woman in groups, a myth of female bonding. Artemis 
is the Amazonian will in solitary self-communing. She is pure Apollo¬ 
nian ego, glinting with the hostile separatism of western personae. She 
is assertion and aggression, followed by withdrawal and purification 
through self-sequestration. Artemis needs an Apollonian imagination 
like Spenser’s to do her justice. Like the Amazon, she sank into erotic 
formula and lost her severity and coldness. Judeo-Christianity has 
nothing like her except Joan of Arc. Our sense of ancient Artemis 
sculptures comes from the Diana of Versailles , a Roman copy. Striding 
forward, bow in hand, the goddess glances over her shoulder as she 
draws an arrow from her quiver. She wears the huntress’ short chiton 
and buskins, acquired in fifth-century Greece. Artemis stalks through 
western space, piercing and dominating it. 

Postclassical art feminizes and pacifies Artemis. Kenneth Clark can 
lament the decline in nobility of a god while overlooking the same thing 
in his twin: depictions of Apollo lost their “feeling of dread,” turning 
him into “the complacent bore of classicism.” 8 Dread is the proper 
response to beings of hieratic purity. Major western painters have been 
inhospitable to the Artemis idea. In Diana and Actaeon , for example, 
Titian makes the goddess an awkward, rump-heavy matron. Rem¬ 
brandt’s Diana is homely and middle-aged, breasts and belly sagging. 
Rembrandt’s Bellona gives the Roman war-goddess a stunted body and 

Apollo and Dionysus 


porky face. French Renaissance art has many Dianas, inspired by Di¬ 
ane de Poitiers, mistress of Henry II. Because of their residual Gothi- 
cism, these works of the Fontainebleau school are persuasively slim, 
small-breasted, and emotionally cold, but they are unmistakable con¬ 
flations of Diana and Venus. Goujon’s marble Diana ofAnet and even 
Boucher’s later The Bath of Diana retain Artemis’ clarity of outline, but 
they are both too chic for the fierce goddess of the woods. 

The true Artemis is remote and intimidating, offering nothing for 
fantasy. As an independent female impulse, she seems to have triggered 
a persistent negativity among male artists, who turn her swift and sud¬ 
den action into fleshy passivity. Louis XIV ordered the muscles of the 
classical Venus of Arles planed down to conform to an acceptable canon 
of femininity. Sexual reduction is also apparent in Saint-Gaudens’ co¬ 
lossal gold Diana , which stood upon the turret of the old Madison 
Square Garden (1891) and now commands the grand staircase of the 
Philadelphia Museum of Art. The goddess has a magnificent heroic 
bow, but as she draws back the string, no muscular tension ripples 
through her arms or empty upper back. There is no passion for the 
chase or “feeling of dread” in this nubile nymph. The true Artemis is 
taut in body and mind. 

Artemis is overshadowed by Clark’s Vegetable Aphrodite, woman as 
opulent organic form. Fruitfulness is the metaphor of times of famine, 
physical or spiritual. The first completely nude female in monumental 
sculpture appears at the dawn of the Hellenistic era, Praxiteles’ Aphro¬ 
dite ofKnidos (ca. 350 b.c.). Greek art had been full of vigorous male 
nudes for two hundred years. The buxom Knidian Aphrodite marks a 
shift from the homosexuality of classic Athens. It starts a tradition of 
female posture, transmitted to Botticelli’s Venus through the Roman 
Venus Pudica , modestly stooping, knees pressed together. We saw this in 
the Venus of Willendorf, where procreative woman is bound down by 
her own abundance, hormonal ropes of flab. I spoke of the knock-knees 
of the wide-hipped woman that inhibit running. Because of their nar¬ 
row hips, men can move their legs efficiently, like pistons. The best 
women runners have lean male bodies. Big-breasted, wide-hipped 
women excel at few sports. The intimacy between fat and fertility is 
demonstrated by menstruation halting in woman athletes whose body 
fat falls below a certain biological level. Artemis is a cancellation of the 
Vegetable Aphrodite. She rejects anatomy as destiny. Rover and rav- 
ener, she is the woman runner who is always first. Nefertiti reverses 
Venus of Willendorf by displacing energy into the head. Artemis, living 
in and for the body, streamlines the female form by her implacable male 


Apollo and Dionysus 

will. She is one of the Greeks’ greatest Apollonian ideas, pitiless and 

Artemis exists alone. Her Amazonism is directed toward women as 
well as men. As with Apollo, her sexual duality is in her self-completion. 
No one before the Roman poet-pornographers attributed aberrant 
tastes to her. Boucher illustrates the lesbian salaciousness in an episode 
from Ovid, Zeus as Artemis, wooing Callisto. But Artemis and Athena are 
incapable of lesbianism, since their mythic identity is predicated on 
militant chasity. This chastity is a metaphor for power, freedom, and 
audacity. It descends from the Great Mother’s renewable virginity, sig¬ 
nifying independence from males. The postclassical era has personified 
chastity in softer, more ingratiating forms—modest maidens, silent 
nuns, or blushing children, like Dickens’ Little Dorritt. Judeo-Christian 
chastity is devout self-sacrifice. But the Greeks saw chastity as an armed 
goddess of brazen ego. 

An Orphic hymn calls Artemis arsenomorphe , “masculine in form or 
look.” I will use this adjective for Katharine Hepburn in The Phila¬ 
delphia Story ; which is structured around a Diana myth. Hepburn is the 
only true Artemis in western art after Spenser’s Belphoebe, the female 
warrior who swerves from all touch. Artemis is velocity and splendor. 
She is woman imperiously eluding the world and definitions of men. 
The sole male she honors is her brother, her double. Like Athena, she is 
resolution and action. But in Athena, action takes place in and for 
society: she is the helpmeet. Artemis is solitude and action joined. She is 
selfish, but she pushes selfhood to the limits of western possibility. She 
inhabits a purely physical realm. Spengler says, “Apollo and Athene 
have no souls.” 9 Artemis is pre-Christian purity without spirituality. 
Like Nefertiti, she is a visionary materialist. She is western personality 
as thing , matter cleansed of the chthonian. 

As a woman, Artemis has a heroic glamour. She has nerve, fire, 
arrogance, force. She belongs to the warlike Age of Aries, preceding 
Christian charity. She is blood lust, bloody-mindedness. Worldwide, 
she is the female persona of maximum aggression, expressed in the 
hunt by pursuit, speed, defiance, risk. Her Apollonian arrow is the 
western eye and the western will. Like an athlete, she is for victory and 
glory. Artemis is uncomplex. She has no contradictions because she has 
no inner life. Her Amazonism is in her polished armoured ego. She is 
incapable of relaxation or relenting. As a character type, she is an 
arrested adolescent. Her figure is boyish, her breasts undeveloped. She 
cannot be psychologically, much less physically, invaded. Artemis is 
unfeminine because uninfluenced by the environment, which she sur- 

Apollo and Dionysus 


mounts. She is pristine. She never learns. In her blankness and cold¬ 
ness, she is a perfect selfhood, a sublime energy. Seeking parallels, one 
thinks of Greta Garbo, with her reclusiveness and frosty emptiness, but 
not of Marlene Dietrich, who has the stunning physical brilliance of Ar¬ 
temis but also an irony gained from a worldly experience of which Arte¬ 
mis can know nothing. Artemis the runner, connecting only through 
her arrows of domination, is woman darting away into western epic 
space. She puts into divine perpetual motion the burden of woman’s 
chthonian body. 

In the revival of pagan culture from the Renaissance on, 
Apollo was hailed as the supreme creation of classical mythology. As 
patron of poetry he appealed to artists, and as a beautiful young man he 
appealed to homosexuals. Athena has received far less attention. But 
she dominates the Odyssey, and she was the patron of classical Athens, 
which she surveyed from two colossal statues on the Acropolis. Amazon 
goddesses, a brilliant pagan idea, have won no popularity contests in 
Christian times. 

Athena, I would argue, is Apollo’s equal. She has no parallels or 
descendants. Though she is the most cinematic of the Greek gods, film 
has never reproduced her. She is massive yet mobile, overwhelming by 
both mental and physical force. She is icon-laden, a power lifter over¬ 
determined by duty (fig. 10). Gilbert Murray says, “Athena is an ideal, 
an ideal and a mystery; the ideal of wisdom, of incessant labor, of almost 
terrifying purity.” 10 Otto says: “The modem, and particularly the north¬ 
erner, must accustom himself to the lightning clarity of her form gradu¬ 
ally. Her brightness breaks into our foggy atmosphere with almost 
terrifying harshness.” 11 Athena is a beam of hard white light, a cold 
pagan sunburst. She has a dangerous luminosity. Tugged by the hair, 
Homer’s Achilles recognizes her immediately, “so terrible was the bril- 
lance of her eyes.” 12 The Apollonian Olympians are eye-gods, living, 
warning, and ruling by the aggressive western eye. 

Athena has a complex sexual duality, beginning with her bizarre 
birth. Hesiod says Zeus, warned that his pregnant first wife Metis will 
bear a son stronger than his father, swallows her whole. Athena then 
springs from Zeus’ brow, her exit facilitated in some accounts by the 
hammer blow of Hephaestus or Prometheus. Metis’ role was probably 
invented to explain the older legend of Athena’s birth from the head of 
Zeus. Perhaps androgynous Athena is a collapsing of Metis into her 
male fetus. Athena is bom of aggression. She must fight her way out. 
The hammer blow is her power too, like a fist pounding a table. We 


Apollo and Dionysus 

10. Athena Parthenos . The 
Varvakeion statuette. Roman marble 
copy, first century a.d., of ivory and 
gold colossus by Pheidias in the 
Parthenon, ca. 447-439 b.c. 

speak of being “struck” by a thought or, in Sixties slang, of having a 
“flash” of insight. Athena is Zeus ponderously thinking, treading by 
dread giant steps of primitive induction. Zeus too is hermaphrodite: he 
has the power of self-insemination and procreation or conception, 
which in English as in Latin has a double meaning of pregnancy and 
comprehension. Egyptian Khepera, the masturbatory First Mover, is 
shown coiled in an uroboros-like circle, feet touching head, from which 
leaps a tiny human figure. So perhaps Zeus too is a primal masturbator, 
loving himself as he would next love his sister Hera. Amazon Athena is a 
brazen spume of divine self-love. Gregory Zilboorg compares Athena’s 
birth to the ritual couvade, where a father, after delivery of a baby, 
jealously takes to bed and is attended as if he were in labor. Citing 
schizophrenic fantasies of a baby issuing from head or penis, Zilboorg 
concludes that the myths of Athena’s and Dionysus’ birth come from 

Apollo and Dionysus 


“woman-envy,” male envy of female powers, which he thinks earlier 
and “psychogenetically older and therefore more fundamental” than 
Freud’s penis-envy. 13 

Athena’s sexual duality is also expressed in her masculine armour. 
The Athenians incorrectly understood her title Pallas to mean Bran- 
disher of Weapons (pallo , “I wield or brandish”). In the Iliad she van¬ 
quishes the god of war by knocking him down with a boulder. Zeus 
loans her his own arms, including the “huge heavy spear” and panic¬ 
spreading aegis, which she wears like a shawl. A goatskin ringed with 
serpents, the aegis is a vestige of chthonian violence. It may represent a 
storm cloud split by snaky thunderbolts. I see the aegis as Olympian but 
not yet Apollonian. That is, it descends from earliest sky-cult, when 
heaven was primitive, occult, opaque rather than rational and transpar¬ 
ent—when it was purple-black rather than blue-white. The sacred 
animal of the Acropolis, the great serpent of Erechtheus, legendary 
king of Athens, coils behind Athena’s shield. Sometimes she is shown 
casting a snake like a spear. The serpent may be her male alter ego, a 
phallic projection. It clings to her images as a remnant of her early 
character as a Minoan vegetation goddess. 

Becoming Apollonian, Artemis throws off all sign of her chthonian 
origins. Athena, on the other hand, bristles with barbaric badges, nota¬ 
bly the Gorgon’s head on breast and shield. Freud says this “symbol of 
horror” makes her “a woman who is unapproachable and repels all sex¬ 
ual desires—since she displays the terrifying genitals of the Mother.” 14 
Serene virginity symbolized by chthonian ugliness: Milton resolves this 
incongruity in defining Minerva’s “snaky-headed Gorgon shield” as the 
goddess’ “rigid looks of Chaste austerity” (Comus 447-50). A rigid look 
is phallic ocular aggression. 

In Athena’s elaborate iconography, so unlike the emblematic simplic¬ 
ity of the other Olympians, resides her uncanniness, her sex-surpassing 
power. Scholarship has shown relatively little interest in her transvestite 
armour. There is universal acceptance of Martin Nilsson’s theory that 
Athena was a pre-Hellenic deity who became palace goddess of the 
Mycenaean warlords. Hence she donned her armour as defender of the 
citadel. But etiology does not explain persistence. The armed Athena 
lingered on more than five hundred years after the end of Mycenaean 
culture. As Thucydides notes, the Athenians were the first people to go 
about without weapons. C. J. Herington describes two different versions 
of Athena worshipped on the Acropolis: the goddess of the Erechtheum 
was a peaceful fertility goddess, shown seated and unarmed; Athena 
Parthenos, the virgin goddess of the Parthenon (“Virgin Temple”), was 


Apollo and Dionysus 

a standing or striding warrior in battle armour. These presumably 
correspond to her incarnations as Athena Ergane, patron of handicrafts 
and weaving, and Athena Promachos, champion of the fighting line. 
She appeared as the latter in Pheidias’ two colossi, the ivory and gold 
statue inside the Parthenon and its outdoor companion, whose glinting 
helmet could be seen by ships at sea as far as Cape Sunium. 

Thus, far from the Mycenaeans permanently fixing Athena in their 
own martial image, her Minoan prototype remained available for meta¬ 
phorical development until the high classic period. We must explain 
why the armed Athena prevailed in Athens, for whom she meant far 
more than military might. As Herington remarks, “When we reach the 
age of Pericles and Pheidias it will be she who is chosen to express the 
highest beliefs of that age.” 15 Athens’ mirror image was a solar an¬ 
drogyne, perfect in body, mind, and eye. Athena’s sexual hybridism is 
already evident in Homer, who makes her descents a sexual masquer¬ 
ade. In the Iliad, Athena appears on earth four times as a male, once as a 
vulture, and six times in her own form. In the Odyssey , she appears eight 
times as a male, twice as a human girl, six times as herself. She is 
sometimes aged Mentor or Phoenix, sometimes a beautiful shepherd or 
“sturdy spearman” in arms. One of Homer’s most magical motifs is this 
busy flying about of Athena-energy. Only once does another deity take 
cross-sexual form, when Iris appears to Priam as his son Polites. Hera 
never appears as a man, since she lacks the masculine component that 
would enable her to do so. Vergil adopts the transsexual motif somewhat 
mechanically: Jutuma, Tumus’ sister, appears once as a warrior and 
twice as a charioteer. But this is because the Aeneid has absorbed and 
lavishly reimagined Homer’s Amazon theme in the glamourous and 
willful tragic heroines, Dido and Camilla. 

What does Athena’s androgyny mean? Jane Harrison says patriarchy 
turned “the local Kore of Athens” into “a sexless thing, neither man nor 
woman”: “To the end she remains manufactured, unreal, and never 
convinces us. . . . We cannot love a goddess who on principle forgets the 
Earth from which she sprang.” 16 Harrison acknowledges Athena’s an¬ 
drogyny but finds it distasteful. The indignation in her long indictment 
comes from her mistaken belief in a Mediterranean matriarchy, over¬ 
thrown by men. Athena is therefore a collaborator with the oppressor. 
She is sexually inauthentic because of her abandonment of the chtho- 
nian, the analysis of which is the permanent distinction of Harrison’s 
wonderful body of work. Harrison has influenced me heavily, but my 
theory of the chthonian is darker and less trusting. I see too much 

Apollo and Dionysus 


Wordsworth in her nineteenth-century view of nature. I follow Sade 
and Coleridge. 

My refutation of Harrison’s view begins with her assertion, “The 
strange denaturalized birth of Athene from the brain of Zeus is a dark, 
desperate effort to make thought the basis of being and reality.” 17 But 
Athena never did represent pure thought. Metis, the name of her sup¬ 
posed mother, means “counsel, wisdom, skill, cunning, craft.” Even 
sophia is first “cleverness, skill, cunning, shrewdness” and only sec¬ 
ondly “scientific knowledge, wisdom, philosophy” Athena is techne 
(“art, skill”) rather than nous (“mind”). Thus her patronage of the crafts. 
Her special favorites are men of action, especially Odysseus, Homer’s 
“man of many wiles.” The virtues she gives are listed by a suitor praising 
Penelope—“the matchless gifts that she owes to Athene, her skill in fine 
handicraft, her excellent brain, and that genius she has for getting her 
way.” 18 Both Odysseus and Penelope are tricksters and master strate¬ 
gists. Life for him is a performance art. He brings down Troy by a ruse, 
where brute force has failed. He can make a boat from scratch or carve a 
bed from a living tree. He escapes Cyclops’ cave by improvising a cruel 
log tool and mimicking the Trojan horse by riding out under a ram. 
Homeric mind is ingenuity, practical intelligence. There is no Rodin¬ 
like deep thinking, no mathematical or philosophical speculation. That 
comes much later in history. Odysseus thinks with his hands. He is 
athlete, gambler, engineer. Athena rules technological man, the Greek 
heir to Egyptian constructionism. 

Here, I propose, is the answer to Athena’s androgyny. She appears in 
more disguises and crosses sexual borderlines more often than any 
other Greek god because she symbolizes the resourceful, adaptive 
mind, the ability to invent, plan, conspire, cope, and survive. The mind 
as techne, pragmatic design, was hermaphroditic for the ancients, much 
as the psyche is hermaphroditic for Jung in an era when selfhood 
expands to include the unconscious. Athena personifies only the wak¬ 
ing ego, daylight energies. Premodem psychology externalized dae¬ 
monic powers that we locate in the soul. Thus the Gorgon is on Athena’s 
breast but not in her heart. Athena as the transsexual contriving mind 
exploits situation and opportunity, subduing circumstance to will and 
desire. Here for the first time we see the androgyne as a cultural symbol 
of mind. The Renaissance recasts the androgyne in alchemical terms to 
represent intuition and the spiritualization of matter. Romanticism uses 
the androgyne to symbolize imagination, the creative process, and po¬ 
etry itself. 


Apollo and Dionysus 

All-male Ares is the battle frenzy, a rabid half-animal state. But 
androgynous Athena mentalizes war. Among her inventions are the war 
harness, the trumpet, and the Pyrrhic dance in armour. She is goddess 
of battle music and the battle shout. In a Futurist Manifesto, Marinetti 
speaks of “an aesthetics of war.” Athena turns war into an art form: cal¬ 
culated resolute action is the historical crisscrossing of western space. 
Harrison’s association of Athena with pure thought belongs to the 
Hellenistic era, when the goddess increasingly personified sober, soli¬ 
tary wisdom. 

As presiding deity of the Odyssey ; Athena is a projected displacement 
of the mercurial consciousness of cagey Odysseus, the dexterous escape 
artist. The connection between Athena’s adventurous transsexualism 
and the machinations of the subtle mind is demonstrated in a scene 
where she changes sex before our eyes. Waking on the foggy shore of 
Ithaca, the goal toward which he has struggled for ten years, Odysseus 
sees a young shepherd with a javelin, Athena in disguise. Odysseus 
spins a long spurious saga of woe. 

The bright-eyed goddess smiled at Odysseus’ tale and caressed 
him with her hand. Her appearance altered, and now she looked 
like a woman, tall, beautiful, and accomplished. . . . 

“And so my stubborn friend, Odysseus the arch-deceiver, with 
his craving for intrigue, does not propose even in his own country to 
drop his sharp practice and the lying tales that he loves from the 
bottom of his heart. But no more of this: we are both adepts in 
chicane. For in the world of men you have no rival as a statesman 
and orator, while I am preeminent among the gods for invention 
and resource.” 19 

Thus Homer’s first scene after the hero achieves his nostos or homecom¬ 
ing takes ritualistic form: one of Odysseus’ shrewd stratagems is en¬ 
closed within, like a set of heraldic parentheses, Athena male and 
Athena female. The dreamlike sex-transformation is a masquelike re¬ 
enactment of the central false speech. Smiling with pleasure, Athena 
says in effect, “What a marvelous liar you are!” Lies are legal Bronze 
Age piracy. Here as at the Phaeacian banquet, Odysseus the storyteller 
stands proxy for Homer the bard. Homeric cinema: the sex-change 
episode theatrically synchronizes word and image. The link between 
Athena’s technical skills and Odysseus’ lies is perfectly conveyed in our 
word “fabrication.” Sexually mobile Athena literally is the shifting, 
shifty powers of human intelligence. Sexual personae are the jumpy 
primal nerve-chemistry of impulse and choice. 

Apollo and Dionysus 


To Harrison’s complaint, then, that Athena has forgotten “the earth 
from which she sprang,” I reply that Athena is divorced from earth 
because she represents the man-made. As patron of the crafts and 
cultivated olive, she gives man control over capricious nature. For Har¬ 
rison, Athena’s virginity is sterile because unfertile in the chthonian 
sense. But virginity is perfect autonomy. Jackson Knight says, “The 
maidenhood of city goddesses seems to have been in some magical 
sympathy with the unbroken defence of a city.” 20 Athena as patron of 
Athens is the wall that shuts the enemy out, the enemy nature as well as 
the enemy man. Her virginity is her stable Apollonian self, the intracta¬ 
ble will behind her hermaphrodite changes. She is fortitude and press¬ 
ing forward, a job to do. She is the fanatical purposiveness of the west, 
limited but all-achieving. 

Aphrodite and Hermes illustrate the gradual purgation of 
chthonian elements from the Olympians. Neither became completely 
Apollonian, as I define it. But they provide models for two of my sexual 

Aphrodite, a Near Eastern fertility goddess, was one of the last addi¬ 
tions to the Olympian pantheon. She began as potent All-Mother and 
ended up in late antiquity as a sentimental literaiy convention, patron of 
love and beauty. In some places, her cult retained traces of her original 
bisexual character. Hesiod is the source of the story of her birth from sea 
foam splashed up by the fall of Uranus’ mutilated genitals. Though this 
savage tale may be another fanciful etymology ( aphros , “foam, froth”), 
it suggests something sexually problematic in the goddess, for newborn 
Aphrodite is a transubstantiation of Uranus’ virility. Athena bursts from 
a divine brain, Aphrodite from divine balls. The goddesses of mutant 
birth are to be victors over males in separate realms. 

On her native Cyprus, Aphrodite was worshipped as the Venus Bar- 
bata, the Bearded Venus. Her image wore female clothing but had a 
beard and male genitals. Ritual sacrifices were conducted by men and 
women in transvestite dress. Elsewhere, as the Venus Calva or Bald 
Venus, Aphrodite was shown with a man’s bald head, like priests of Isis. 
Aristophanes calls her Aphroditos, a Cypriot male name. Aphrodite 
appeared in battle armour in Sparta, which may have borrowed the 
custom from Cythera. The Venus Armata or Armed Venus became a 
Renaissance convention, partly because of the appearance of Vergil’s 
Venus as Diana. I adopt the names Venus Barbata and Venus Calva, the 
Bearded and Bald Venus, for certain highly aggressive, corrosively ver¬ 
bal movie stars like Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor. 


Apollo and Dionysus 

Early Hermes was indistinguishable from the piles of stones and 
phallic monuments called “herms” that marked Greek boundary lines. 
When he attains human shape, it is as a mature bearded man, Psycho- 
pompos, escorter of souls to the underworld. The two centuries from 
Archaic to Hellenistic art change him into a beautiful beardless youth, 
like Apollo. Masculine agrarian vigor becomes androgynous urbanity. 
Late Hermes influences Roman Mercury, to whom Vergil gives “blonde 
hair and graceful young limbs” ( Aen . IV.559). The development from 
Hermes to Mercury is from crude earth-centered monolith to earth- 
defying air-swimmer—from the chthonian to the Apollonian. Late 
Hermes appears in Giambologna’s sleek bronze of Mercury in flight, a 
logo of American florists. 

Our idea of the mercurial comes from the swiftness of wing-footed 
Mercury. Hermes is patron of magic and theft. His epithets are “crafty,” 
“deceiving,” “ingenious.” Otto speaks of his “nimbleness and subtle 
cunning,” his “wonderful deftness” and “mischievousness.” 21 In real 
life, I observe, a volatile mingling of masculine and feminine accom¬ 
panies this constellation of irrepressible, unscrupulous traits. Free 
movement among mood states automatically opens one to multiple sex¬ 
ual personae. Though he has Hermes’ cunning, Odysseus’ persona is 
ruggedly masculine, like early Hermes. The sexual duality latent in 
Odysseus’ strategic personae resides in his androgynous patron, Athena. 
Mercurius, Latin for the god, planet, and quicksilver, is the allegorical 
hermaphrodite of medieval alchemy. I adopt the name Mercurius for a 
crazed, witty, restless, elusive, sexually ambiguous creature. Examples 
are Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Ariel, Goethe’s Mignon, Tolstoy’s Na¬ 
tasha, and Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Marne. 

Hermes carries either a magic herald’s staff or the caduceus, a 
winged rod wrapped by two serpents, a symbol of healing. The ca¬ 
duceus may have a bisexual meaning, like the Egyptian uraeus, Cretan 
labrys or double ax, and our Thanksgiving cornucopia, which is both a 
phallic bull’s horn and an overflowing, abundant womb. The circular 
uroboros is similarly bisexual. Neumann calls it “the serpent which at 
once bears, begets, and devours.” An alchemic text, cited by Jung, says, 
“The dragon slays itself, weds itself, impregnates itself.” 22 Bisexuality, 
in symbol or persona, recreates the plenum of primitive cosmogony. 

Dionysus, Apollo’s antagonist and rival, is not among 
Homer’s Olympians, though he is the son of Zeus. The Apollonian 
Olympians, I said, are eye-gods. Dionysus represents obliteration of the 
western eye. Heir to the Great Mother of chthonian nature, he is, with 

Apollo and Dionysus 


Osiris, the greatest of the dying gods of mystery religion. Out of his 
worship came two rituals of enormous impact on western culture, tragic 
drama and Christian liturgy. 

Dionysus’ androgyny, like Athena’s, begins in a sexually irregular 
birth. When his pregnant mother, Semele, demands her lover prove he 
is Zeus, she is burnt to a crisp. Zeus plucks his son from her womb, 
makes a slit in his own thigh, and sews up the fetus till it comes to term. 
In the Bacchae , Euripides imagines Zeus summoning Dionysus to “en¬ 
ter this my male womb” (526-27). Zeus’s artificial womb resembles 
Adonis’ tusk-tom thigh, a symbol for the castration of the mother-cults. 
Zeus’s Dionysian pregnancy makes the symbolic equation of child with 
penis that Freud finds in the maternal psyche. The analogy is supported 
by a Greek pun on the words for grapevine and scrotum (a>crxr) and 
octxt?), honored at the Athenian Oschophoria, harvest festival of Di¬ 
onysus the wine god. 

The Greeks inaccurately read Dionysus’ double birth in his epithet 
Dithyrambos, the name also of his ritual song: di + thura = “double 
door.” The god is bom through two doors, one female, one male. Jane 
Harrison says of puberty rites of passage, “With the savage, to be twice 
bom is the rule, not the exception.” And elsewhere: “The birth from the 
male womb is to rid the child from the infection of its mother—to turn 
him from a woman-thing into a man-thing.” 23 At the opening of the 
Odyssey ; Telemachus, inspired by male-bom Athena, searches for his 
father by turning against his mother. Jesus too publicly spurns his 
mother to be about his father’s business. Male adulthood begins with 
the breaking of female chains. But Dionysus reverses loyalties. He 
remains the son of his mother, wearing her clothes and loitering with 
bands of women (fig. 11). 

Dionysus’ transvestism is more complete than Athena’s. She adds 
male armour to a female tunic, but he retains nothing male except a 
beard. Archaic vases show him in a woman’s tunic, saffron veil, and 
hairnet. His name Bassareus comes from the Thracian bassara , a wom¬ 
an’s fox-skin mantle. He is called Pseudanor, the Fake Man. Ritual 
transvestism was fairly common in Greek cult. The procession of the 
Oschophoria was led by two boys dressed as girls. Performers of Di¬ 
onysus’ ritual dance, the Ithyphallos, appeared in the costume of the 
opposite sex. In the Hybristika and Hysteria, Aphrodite’s festival at 
Argos, men wore women’s veils and women wore male dress. In the 
festival of Hera on Samos, men wore women’s robes and adorned 
themselves with bracelets, necklaces, and golden hairnets. On wedding 
nights at Cos, the bridegroom wore women’s robes. At Sparta, the bride, 


Apollo and Dionysus 

11. Dionysus and Maenads. Attic red-figured amphora by the Kleophrades 
Painter, ca. 500 b.c. 

head shaved, wore men’s garments and boots. At Argos, the bride 
donned a false beard. 

Several Greek hero sagas have transvestite interludes. Supermascu¬ 
line Hercules is enslaved by the Amazon Omphale, who makes him 
wear women’s clothing and spin wool. The tale was reenacted in the 
Hercules cult at Cos, where his priest wore female dress. Arriving in 
Athens, young Theseus was mistaken for a girl and mocked by a crowd 
of laborers. Nothing changes in the construction trade! The hero re¬ 
sponded by hurling a chariot over a rooftop. Achilles, the supreme 
Greek warrior, began his career in drag. The story of his exposure by 
Odysseus, who found him among the women on Scyros, may recall 
tribal initiations where a band of men invades the women’s quarters to 
kidnap a boy into adult life. Polygnotus painted the transvestite Achilles 
in the Propylaea of the Acropolis, and Euripides devoted a lost play to 
the subject, The Scyrians. 

Ritual transvestism, then and now, is a drama of female dominance. 
There are religious meanings to all female impersonation, in nightclub 
or bedroom. A woman putting on men’s clothes merely steals social 
power. But a man putting on women’s clothes is searching for God. He 
memorializes his mother, whom he watched at the boudoir ritual of her 

Apollo and Dionysus 

9 * 

mirror. Mothers and fathers are not in the same cosmic league. Father¬ 
hood is short, motherhood long, for earth is a mother of ever-changing 
costume, green to brown and back. The Bible condemns tranvestism as 
bag and baggage of the Asiatic mother-cults. Yet the pagan tradition 
survives in Rio de Janeiro at Carnival, in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, in 
Philadelphia on New Year’s Day, and everywhere on Halloween. Hal¬ 
loween masquerade is apotropaic, mimicking the dead on their night of 
nights in order to drive off their ghosts. Ancient transvestism could be 
similarly propitiatory. What is sexually grotesque or criminal in our 
culture may have symbolic significance elsewhere. Frazer says of a 
tribal custom in north New Guinea, where the genitals of a murdered 
man were eaten by an old woman and the genitals of a murdered 
woman eaten by an old man, “Perhaps the intention is to unsex and 
disarm the dangerous ghost.” 24 In primitive life, sex is religion and vice 
versa. Christianity has never shut down the ritual theater of sex. 

Dionysus’ transvestism, then, symbolizes his radical identification 
with mothers. I connect this to his association with water, milk, blood, 
sap, honey, and wine. The Roman and Renaissance Bacchus is no more 
than a wine god. But Greek Dionysus rules what Plutarch calls the 
hygm physis, wet or liquid nature. Dionysus is, as Famell puts it, “the 
liquid principle in things.” 25 Dionysian liquidity is the invisible sea of 
organic life, flooding our cells and uniting us to plants and animals. Our 
bodies are Ferenczi’s primeval ocean, surging and rippling. I interpret 
Plutarch’s hygra physis as not free-flowing but contained water, fluids 
which ooze, drip, or hang in tissues or fleshy sacs. The hygra physis is the 
mature female body, which I declare a prison of gender. Female experi¬ 
ence is submerged in the world of fluids, dramatically demonstrated in 
menstruation, childbirth, and lactation. Edema, water-retention, that 
female curse, is Dionysus’ leaden embrace. Male tumescence is an 
assertion of the separateness of objects. An erection is architectural, 
sky-pointing. Female tumescence, through blood or water, is slow, grav¬ 
itational, amorphous. In the war for human identity, male tumescence 
is an instrument, female tumescence an obstruction. The fatty female 
body is a sponge. At peak menstrual and natal moments, it is locked 
passively in place, suffering wave after wave of Dionysian power. 

There are male initiates into female experience. The white circus 
clown, for example, is an androgyne of female fatness. In silhouette, he 
is pregnant. Stumbling, tumbling, buffeted, he is a tumescence which 
cannot act but is only acted upon. The morbidly obese man, my next 
example, loses virility because he is paralyzed by passive engorgement. 
The fat man as hollow female vessel appears in Prince Hal’s satire of 


Apollo and Dionysus 

Falstaff as “that trunk of humors, . . . that swoll’n parcel of dropsies, 
that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts” (/ Hen 
IV II.iv.454-57). I n Emblems (1635), Francis Quarles expands these 
images to nature, rebuking the fat man, “Thy skin’s a bladder blown 
with watry tumours; / Thy flesh a trembling bog, a quagmire full of 
humours” (I.xii.4). Bog and quagmire are my chthonian swamp, that 
dank primal brew of earth and water that I identify with the female 
body. Fatness is fluidity, the Dionysian master principle. Karl Stern 
diagnoses as “a caricature of femininity” the self-thwarting of neurotic 
men “whose attitude toward life was one of hoarding and retentiveness, 
with a tendency to unproductive accumulation, a kind of unending 
pregnancy of material inflation which never came to creativeness or 
‘birth’.” He calls this syndrome “accumulation without issue.” 26 It is a 
diseased male pregnancy, a stagnant fatness of mind rather than body. It 
may be an occupational hazard of academe, typified by the disap¬ 
pointed mythographer Casaubon of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. 

Dionysus’ female chthonian swamp is inhabited by silent, swarming 
invertebrates. I proposed that the taboo attached to women is justified 
and that the infamous “uncleanness” of menstruation is due not to 
blood but to uterine jellies in that blood. The primal swamp is choked 
with menstrual albumen, the lukewarm matrix of nature, teeming with 
algae and bacteria. We have a food that symbolizes this swamp: raw 
clams on the half-shell. Twenty years ago, I noticed the strong emotions 
roused by this delicacy, to which few are indifferent. Common reactions 
range from ecstasy to revulsion. Why? The clam is a microcosm of the 
female hygra physis. It is as aesthetically and psychologically disturbing 
as menstrual albumen. The primitive shapelessness of raw clams offers 
sensuous access to some archaic swamp-experience. 

Botticelli’s Venus coasts to shore on the half-shell. Sexual love is a 
deep-sea diving into the timeless and elemental. G. Wilson Knight says, 
“Life rose from the sea. Our bodies are three parts water and our minds 
compacted of salty lusts.” 27 Woman’s body reeks of the sea. Ferenczi 
says, “The genital secretion of the female among the higher mammals 
and in man . . . possesses a distinctly fishy odor (odor of herring brine), 
according to the description of all physiologists; this odor of the vagina 
comes from the same substance (trimethylamine) as the decomposition 
of fish gives rise to.” 28 Raw clams, I am convinced, have a latently 
cunnilingual character that many find repugnant. Eating a clam, fresh- 
killed, barely dead, is a barbarous, amorous plunging into mother 
nature’s cold salt sea. 

Scatology and graffiti, in their perennial folk wisdom, rudely ac- 

Apollo and Dionysus 

9 ) 

knowledge woman’s marine character. Slang calls female genitals 
“the bearded clam.” Bawdy t-shirts and bumper stickers link fish- 
consumption with virility. Ivy League students recently traded the fol¬ 
lowing ripostes, scratched in different hands on the wall of a library 
study stall: “Women smell like fish! Men smell like shit! Do women like 
to smell fish? Do fish smell like women? Do fish like to smell women?” 

Dionysus, god of fluids, rules a murky no man’s land of matter half- 
turned to liquid. Neumann notes the linguistic connection in German 
between Mutter ,; mother; Moder ,; bog; Moor, fen; Marsch , marsh; and 
Meer , ocean. 29 A chthonian miasma hangs over woman, like the pol¬ 
luted cloud raining pestilence on Oedipus’ Thebes. The miasma is 
woman’s procreative fate, linking her to the primeval. Artemis is wom¬ 
an on the run, breaking out of her cloud into Apollonian sunlight. 
Artemis’ radiance is a militant self-hardening, a refusal of menarche. 
Dionysus, endorsing woman, also keeps her in the chthonian swamp. 
Sartre speaks of the mucoid or slimy, le visqueux , “a substance in 
between two states,” “a moist and feminine sucking,” “a liquid seen in a 
nightmare,” 30 Sartre’s slime is Dionysus’ swamp, the fleshy muck of the 
generative matrix. There is no vision because there are no eyes. Apollo’s 
solar torch is put out; the heart of creation is blind. In nature’s female 
womb-world, there are no objects and no art. 

Dionysus is the all-embracing totality of mother-cult. Nothing dis¬ 
gusts him, since he contains everything that is. Disgust is an Apollonian 
response, an aesthetic judgment. Disgust always indicates some mis¬ 
alignment toward or swerving away from the maternal. Huysmans 
speaks of “the humid horror” of woman’s unclean body. 31 I will argue 
that nineteenth-century aestheticism, a vision of a glittering crystalline 
world, is a flight from the chthonian swamp into which nature-loving 
Wordsworth inadvertently led Romanticism. Aestheticism insists on the 
Apollonian line, separating objects from each other and from nature. 
Disgust is Apollonian fear at a melting borderline. Ernest Jones says 
Hamlet’s denunciation of his mother shows “that almost physical dis¬ 
gust which is so characteristic a manifestation of intensely ‘repressed’ 
sexual feeling.” 32 Yes, Hamlet struggles against the lure of Oedipal 
incest. But we all commit incest with the nature mother. Hamlet rails 
against the “reechy kisses” of “the bloat King” (Ill.iv. 183—85). A bloated 
male is my pregnant paralyzed clown. Or it is a ripe corpse in a garden, 
the thrifty baked meat of the royal wedding table. Hamlet, as all sons of 
all mothers, is bloated with “this too too solid flesh.” His first soliloquy is 
a strange chain of associations with a hidden chthonian logic: it moves 
from suicidal self-disgust to thoughts of the world as “an unweeded 


Apollo and Dionysus 

garden,” overgrown by “things rank and gross in nature,” and ends in 
lurid visualization of his mother’s sex life amid rumpled “incestuous 
sheets,” sweaty soiled rags, both swaddlings and shroud, mother na¬ 
ture’s bindings of birth and death (I.ii.i 29-59). The play is filled with 
bad smells. The stench is from an unavenged corpse but also from the 
female prirna materia , the humid base of organic life, which Hamlet 
resists in decadent revulsion. 

Another female closet, another swamp of sex and filth: Jonathan 
Swift’s odd poem, The Lady's Dressing Room. Another male as lover, 
hater, voyeur, forcing his way into the squalid womb-world from which 
we came. It is slippery with refuse, poison, and magic ointments. Swift 
rejects his protagonist’s disgust: “Should I the Queen of Love refuse, / 
Because she rose from stinking Ooze?” Venus skims into town on a 
sewer. Swift confirms my identification of shellfish and swamp. The 
hearty poet will eat the clam, while his protagonist gags with Sartre’s 
nausea. Swift’s boudoir mire may come from Milton’s Comus , where a 
virgin is stuck to her enchanted chair, “smear’d with gums of glutinous 
heat.” These are piney Dionysian resins, fishy female jellies, the dead 
weight of Medusan paralysis. Sex locks us in place. The virgin is re¬ 
leased from the mucoid swamp by a water-nymph from under “the 
glassy cool, translucent wave,” an Apollonian realm of purity, clarity, 
and vision. Milton’s chastity is “clad in complete steel,” “a quiver’d 
Nymph with Arrows keen,” like Spenser’s Amazons. 33 Chastity is al¬ 
ways a triumph of Apollo over Dionysus. It is the sanctity of the object 
reclaimed from the dank, clingy liquidity of chthonian nature. Scylla or 
Charybdis: woman’s lubricious lubrications are the easy road to Lear’s 
hell, where both sexes are lost. 

The Dionysian was trivialized by Sixties polemicists, who turned it 
into play and protest. Pot on the picketline. Sex in the romper room. 
Benign regression. But the great god Dionysus is the barbarism and 
brutality of mother nature. Comparing the Orphic to Olympian strains 
in Greek religion, Gilbert Murray says, “These things are Gods or forms 
of God: not fabulous immortal men, but ‘Things which Are’, things 
utterly non-human and non-moral, which bring man bliss or tear his 
life to shreds without a break in their own serenity.” 34 Dionysus liber¬ 
ates by destroying. He is not pleasure but pleasure-pain, the tormenting 
bondage of our life in the body. For each gift he exacts a price. Diony¬ 
sian orgy ended in mutilation and dismemberment. The Maenads’ 
frenzy was bathed in blood. True Dionysian dance is a rupturing ex¬ 
tremity of torsion. The harsh percussive accents of Stravinsky, Martha 
Graham, and rock music are cosmic concussions upon the human, vol- 

Apollo and Dionysus 

9 S 

leys of pure force. Dionysian nature is cataclysmic. Our bodies are pa¬ 
gan temples, heathen holdouts against Judeo-Christian soul or mind. A 
modem overimbiber, kneeling, moaning, and compulsively vomiting, is 
said to be “worshipping at the porcelain god.” When the body’s chtho- 
nian spasms take over, we are invaded by Dionysus. The uterine con¬ 
tractions of menstruation and childbirth are Dionysus’ fist clenching in 
our bowels. Birth is expulsion, a rocky cascade of spasms kicking us out 
in a river of blood. We are skin drums which nature beats. Invitation to 
Dionysian dance is a binding contract of enslavement to nature. 

The violent principle of Dionysian cult is sparagmos, which in Greek 
means “a rending, tearing, mangling” and secondly “a convulsion, 
spasm.” The body of the god, or a human or animal substitute, is torn to 
pieces, which are eaten or scattered like seed. Omophagy, ritual eating 
of raw flesh, is the assimilation and internalization of godhead. Ancient 
mystery religion was posited on the worshipper’s imitation of the god. 
Cannibalism was impersonation, a primitive theater. You are what you 
eat. The body parts of dismembered Osiris, scattered across the earth, 
were collected by Isis, who founded a shrine at each site. Before his 
arrest, Jesus tears the Passover bread for his disciples: “Take, eat; this is 
my body” (Mt. 26:26). At every Christian service, wafers and wine are 
changed into Christ’s body and blood, consumed by the worshipper. In 
Catholicism, this is not symbolic but literal. Transubstantiation is can¬ 
nibalism. Dionysian sparagmos was an ecstasy of sexual excitation and 
superhuman strength. Try disjointing a grocery chicken with your bare 
hands!—much less a living goat or heifer. The scattering of sparagmos 
inseminated the earth. Hence swallowing the god’s parts was an act of 
physical love. There may be an element of omophagy in all oral sex, a 
mystic ritual, reverent and sadistic. Nature lives by sparagmos, no 
literary abstraction. She is forever tearing apart in order to remake: a 
witness of a recent air crash, where 131 died when a wind shear slapped 
the plane to the ground, told reporters, “It was like arms and legs 
separated and burning.” Accidents and disasters are a religious specta¬ 
cle. The sensationalizing media give us the grotesque truth about real¬ 

Meditating on Apollo and Dionysus, Plutarch says dismemberment 
is a metaphor for Dionysus’ metamorphoses “into winds and water, 
earth and stars, and into the generations of plants and animals.” 35 
Dionysus, like Proteus, shifts through all forms of being, high to low. 
Human, animal, plant, mineral: none has special status. All are equal¬ 
ized and sacralized in the continuum of natural energy. Dionysus, 
leveling the great chain of being, respects no hierarchy. Plutarch says 


Apollo and Dionysus 

“riddles and fabulous tales” about Dionysus “construct destructions 
and disappearances, followed by returns to life and regenerations.” 
Mystery religions offered initiates eternal life. Promise of resurrection 
was and is a major reason for Christianity’s spread. Olympian cult had 
no such lure: the visible separatism of the sharp-edged Apollonian gods 
applied also to their relations with worshippers. Jane Harrison says of 
the birth of tragedy in Dionysian ritual, “Athene and Zeus and Posei¬ 
don have no drama because no one, in his wildest moments, believed he 
could become and be Athene or Zeus or Poseidon.” 36 Mystery religion’s 
impersonation and theatricality linger in Christian liturgy, where cele¬ 
brant and laity replay the Last Supper and blood-sacrifice of the Cru¬ 
cifixion. The Imitation of Christ suffuses prayer and ritual, as in the 
fourteen Stations of the Cross or the stigmata, Christ’s bleeding wounds 
miraculously appearing on hands and feet of the devout. Our word 
enthusiasm comes from Dionysian enthousiosmos , a wild state of holy 
inspiration. The devotee was entheos, “full of the god.” Man and god 
were fused: Frazer says, “Every dead Egyptian was identified with 
Osiris and bore his name.” 37 Mystery religion is a communion, a union 
of human and divine, surging through the world with all-conquering 
force. Mystery religion is a vibration, a tremor or temblor reducing the 
visible to the tangible, a brute laying on of hands. 

The Apollonian and Dionysian, two great western principles, govern 
sexual personae in life and art. My theory is this: Dionysus is identifica¬ 
tion, Apollo objectification. Dionysus is the empathic, the sympathetic 
emotion transporting us into other people, other places, other times. 
Apollo is the hard, cold separatism of western personality and categori¬ 
cal thought. Dionysus is energy, ecstasy, hysteria, promiscuity, emotion¬ 
alism—heedless indiscriminateness of idea or practice. Apollo is ob¬ 
sessiveness, voyeurism, idolatry, fascism—frigidity and aggression of 
the eye, petrifaction of objects. Human imagination rolls through the 
world seeking cathexis. Here, there, everywhere, it invests itself in 
perishable things of flesh, silk, marble, and metal, materializations of 
desire. Words themselves the west makes into objects. Complete har¬ 
mony is impossible. Our brains are split, and brain is split from body. 
The quarrel between Apollo and Dionysus is the quarrel between the 
higher cortex and the older limbic and reptilian brains. Art reflects on 
and resolves the eternal human dilemma of order versus energy. In the 
west, Apollo and Dionysus strive for victory. Apollo makes the boundary 
lines that are civilization but that lead to convention, constraint, oppres¬ 
sion. Dionysus is energy unbound, mad, callous, destructive, wasteful. 
Apollo is law, history, tradition, the dignity and safety of custom and 

Apollo and Dionysus 


form. Dionysus is the new, exhilarating but rude, sweeping all away to 
begin again. Apollo is a tyrant, Dionysus a vandal. Every excess breeds 
its counterreaction. So western culture swings from point to point on its 
complex cycle, pouring forth its lavish tributes of art, word, and deed. 
We have littered the world with grandiose achievements. Our story is 
vast, lurid, and unending. 

Now to translate these principles into psychology and politics. Plu¬ 
tarch calls Apollo the One, “denying the Many and abjuring multi¬ 
plicity.” 38 The Apollonian is aristocratic, monarchist, and reactionary. 
Volatile, mobile Dionysus is hoi polloi , the Many. He is rabble and 
rubble, both democratic mob-rule and the slurry of uncountable objects 
rumbling through nature. Harrison says, “Apollo is the principle of 
simplicity, unity and purity, Dionysos of manifold change and meta¬ 
morphosis.” 59 Greek artists, says Plutarch, attribute to Apollo “unifor¬ 
mity, orderliness, and unadulterated seriousness” but to Dionysus 
“variability,” “playfulness, wantonness, and frenzy.” Dionysus is a 
masquer and improviser; he is daemonic energy and plural identity. 
Dodds states: “He is Lusios, ‘the Liberator’—the god who by very 
simple means, or by other means not so simple, enables you for a short 
time to stop being yourself \ and thereby set you free. . . . The aim of his 
cult was ecstasis —which could mean anything from ‘taking you out of 
yourself’ to a profound alteration of personality.” 40 Ecstasis (“standing 
outside of”) is trancelike self-removal, schizoid or shamanistic. Diony¬ 
sus’ amorality cuts both ways. He is god of theater, masked balls, and 
free love—but also of anarchy, gang rape, and mass murder. Playful¬ 
ness and criminality are first cousins, flouting the norm. Frosty Apollo 
has a sculptural coherence and clarity. The Apollonian “One,” strict, 
rigid, and contained, is western personality as work of art, haughty and 

Dionysian sparagmos and Dionysian liquidity are analogous. Spar- 
agmos denies the identity of objects. It is nature grinding down and 
dissolving matter to energy. Ernst Cassirer speaks of the “instability” 
and “law of metamorphosis” of the mythical world, which is “at a much 
more fluid and fluctuating stage than our theoretical world of things 
and properties.” 41 Dionysian fluidity is the plenum of the dank female 
swamp. Dionysian metamorphoses are the scintillations of nature’s 
high-energy perpetual-motion machine. Sparagmos and metamorpho¬ 
sis, sex and violence flood our dream life, where objects and persons 
flicker and merge. Dreams are Dionysian magic in the sensory in¬ 
flammation of sleep. Sleep is a cavern to which we nightly descend, our 
bed a musty burrow of primeval hibernation. There we go into trance, 


Apollo and Dionysus 

drooling and twitching. Dionysus is our body’s automatic reflexes and 
involuntary functions, the serpentine peristalsis of the archaic. Apol¬ 
lo freezes, Dionysus dissolves. Apollo says, “Stop!” Dionysus says* 
“Move!” Apollo binds together and battens down against the storm of 

G. Wilson Knight remarks, “The Apollonian is the created ideal, 
forms of visionary beauty that can be seen, sight rather than sound, 
intellectually clear to us.” 42 We contemplate the Apollonian from an 
aesthetic distance. In Dionysian identification, space is collapsed. The 
eye cannot maintain point of view. Dionysus can’t see the forest for the 
trees. The wet dream of Dionysian liquidity takes the hard edges off 
things. Objects and ideas are fuzzy, misty—that mistiness Johnny 
Mathis sings of in love. Dionysian empathy is Dionysian dissolution. 
Sparagmos is sharing , breaking bread or body together. Dionysian 
identification is fellow feeling, extended or enlarged identity. It passed 
into Christianity, which tried to separate Dionysian love from Dionysian 
nature. But as I said, there is no agape or caritas without eros. The 
continuum of empathy and emotion leads to sex. Failure to realize that 
was the Christian error. The continuum of sex leads to sadomasochism. 
Failure to realize that was the error of the Dionysian Sixties. Dionysus 
expands identity but crushes individuals. There is no liberal dignity of 
the person in the Dionysian. The god gives latitude but no civil rights. In 
nature we are convicted without appeal. 

Pagan Beauty 

The competing Apollonian and Dionysian elements in 
Greek culture remained unresolved. Egypt alone was able to synthesize 
sunlit clarity of form with daemonic earth-cult: it honored both the eye 
and the labyrinth of biology. Egyptian state religion, with its mystic 
obscurantism yet soaring clear geometries, unified the classes in one 
system of belief. In Greece there may have been a split, with aristocrats 
following Olympian sky-cult, while farmers, nominally Olympian, cau¬ 
tiously continued to honor primeval spirits of the soil. Fifth-century 
Athenian culture was supremely Apollonian. Indeed, classic style is 
always a defeat of Dionysus by Apollo. It is form rescued from mother 
earth’s oceanic dissolutions. 

High classic moments, as at the Renaissance, are short. The artist 
speaks for his nation and is buoyed by a rush of collective confidence. 
This was the Shakespeare of the Elizabethan 1590s or the Michelan¬ 
gelo of the David and Creation of Man. But politics spiral out of control. 
David turns into Goliath. The idealist on the throne is followed by the 
cynic. Out of the morass of Byzantine court politics came the Jacobean 
Shakespeare of Hamlet and the problem plays and the Mannerist Mi¬ 
chelangelo of the stormy Last Judgment and Medici Chapel nudes. 
High classic art is simple, serene, balanced. Late-phase art is accom¬ 
plished but anxious. Composition is crowded or overwrought; color is 
lurid. The Hellenistic Laocoon shows the theatrical perversity of late 
style: heroic male athleticism strained and bursting, strangled by ser¬ 
pents. Beautiful and grotesque conjoin. Late-phase art defiles high 
classic form with mother nature’s sex and violence. Dionysus, bound 
down by Apollo, always escapes and returns with a vengeance. 

The movement from Dionysus to Apollo and back is illustrated in two 
landmarks of Greek drama, Aeschylus’ Oresteia (458 b.c.) and Euripi¬ 
des’ Bacchae (407 b.c.), which stand at either end of classical Athens. 
From Aeschylus’ generation, exhilarated by its defeat of the Persian 



Pagan Beauty 

invaders, came the formal perfection of classic art and architecture — 
the beauty and freedom of male sculpture, the grand yet humanistic 
proportions of the Parthenon. The Oresteia proclaims Apollo’s triumph 
over chthonian nature. Fifty years later, after Athens’ decline and fall, 
Euripides answers each of Aeschylus’ Apollonian assertions. The Bac- 
hae is a point-by-point refutation of the Oresteia. The Apollonian house 
that Athens built is demolished by a wave of chthonian super¬ 
power. Dionysus, the invader from the east, succeeds where the Per¬ 
sians failed. Sky-cult topples back into earth-cult. 

Aeschylus makes the ancient legend of the House of Atreus a meta¬ 
phor for the birth of civilization out of barbarism. For him, history is 
progress; in this respect, he is the first liberal. Unfortunately for women, 
the ideal of Athenian democracy celebrated by the Oresteia requires a 
defeat of female power. Modem readers may not catch the chutzpah in 
Aeschylus’ local boosterism: his steering of a Homeric saga toward his 
hometown (a mere hamlet in the Iliad) is like an American poet making 
the Knights of the Round Table emigrate to New York. But Aeschylus 
was right. The coming decades were to be a peak moment in world 
history, a burst of creativity accompanied by institutionalized misogyny. 
Women played no part in Athenian high culture. They could not vote, 
attend the theater, or walk in the stoa talking philosophy. But the male 
orientation of classical Athens was inseparable from its genius. Athens 
became great not despite but because of its misogyny. Male homosex¬ 
uality played a similar catalytic role in Renaissance Florence and Eliza¬ 
bethan London. At such moments, male bonding enjoys an amorous 
intensity of self-assurance, a transient conviction of victory over 
mothers and nature. For 2,500 years, western culture has fed itself on 
the enormous achievements of homosexual hybris, small bands of men 
attaining visionary heights in a few concentrated years of exaltation and 

The Oresteia recapitulates history, moving from nature to society, 
from chaos to order, from emotion to reason, from revenge to justice, 
from female to male. Father kills daughter; wife kills husband; son kills 
mother. Who is guilty, who innocent? The competing claims, weighed 
by an Athenian tribunal, produce a tie vote. It is broken by Athena, 
the warrior-androgyne, who unexpectedly endorses male rule on the 
grounds that she is motherless, bom from her father alone. Athens’ 
patron is the armoured woman, a female hard-body, without chthonian 
interiority. Athena seals up the womb-space of mother nature. She 
closes the Oresteia in two senses, just as Clytemnestra opens it. Athena 
is the Apollonian answer to the problem of woman dogging every man. 

Pagan Beauty 


The first words of male-willed Clytemnestra evoke the ancient power 
of fertile “mother night” (Ag. 265). She stands for female rights, the 
priority of mother over son and wife over husband. Unlike Homer, 
Aeschylus makes Aegisthus a gigolo, lesser consort of a goddess-queen. 
The Furies, Clytemnestra’s hellhound avengers, are daemonic spirits of 
earth-cult, black as their mother night. They are ugly. They offend the 
eye . The Furies are snake-crowned hags, eyes dripping pus. Apollo and 
his priestess cannot stand to look at them: he banishes them to their 
home of “beheadings, tom-out eyes, cut throats, castration, mutilation, 
stoning, and impalement” (Eurn. 186—90). The Furies come from the 
realm of Dionysian sparagmos or ritual dismemberment. The chtho- 
nian annihilates form and obliterates the eye. The Furies complain of 
lack of respect from the Olympian “whelps,” young gods wet behind the 
ears. History stirs from nature’s grasp. Apollo, the solar eye, has broken 
free of mother night. 

The Oresteia shows that society is a defense against nature. Every¬ 
thing intelligible—institutions, objects, persons, ideas—is the result of 
Apollonian clarification, adjudication, and action. Western politics, sci¬ 
ence, psychology, and art are creations of arrogant Apollo. Through 
every century, winning or losing, western mind has struggled to keep 
nature at bay. The Oresteia 's sexist transition from matriarchy to pa¬ 
triarchy records the rebellion every imagination must make against 
nature. Without that rebellion, we as a species are condemned to re¬ 
gression or stasis. Even rebelling, we cannot get far. But all vying with 
fate is godlike. 

The Oresteia 's sexism was the first shock wave of Greek conceptual¬ 
ism. Art and architecture had near to hand the Egyptian formalism of 
stone column and sculpture, which had been slowly developing through 
the Archaic era. Philosophy suddenly emerged from pre-Socratic phys¬ 
ics. Aeschylus’ Apollonian trilogy inaugurated the golden age of classi¬ 
cism. Greek tragedy is a conceptual cage in which Dionysus, founder of 
theater, is caught. A play is an anxiety-formation freezing his barbaric 
Protean energy. At the end of the Oresteia the Furies, cleansed of the 
chthonian, become Eumenides, “Kindly Ones,” Athens’ benevolent 
guardians. Greek tragedy is an Apollonian prayer, stifling nature’s 
amoral appetite. It works only while society coheres. When the center 
does not hold, tragedy disintegrates. Dionysus is the mist slipping 
through society’s cracks. 

After 431 b.c., Athens was humiliated by plague, the failed Sicilian 
expedition, and defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Idealism 
and sense of mission were gone. Apollonian clarity and perfection were 


Pagan Beauty 

no longer possible. Euripides’ Bacchae , emerging from the city’s self¬ 
doubt and self-criticism, satirically reverses the Oresteia: chthonian 
nature, which Aeschylus defeats, rebounds with terrible force. Diony¬ 
sus makes landfall at Thebes, site of Sophocles’ greatest play. Euripides 
rewrites his precursors’ central statements. Teiresias, who in Sophocles 
warns Oedipus to seek Apollonian illumination, now warns Pentheus 
the other way. Again, Teiresias is the sexual track along which the 
protagonist moves to destruction. Oedipus’ twenty-four-hour transfor¬ 
mation from hypermasculine hero to maimed sufferer is echoed by 
Pentheus’ transformation from strutting young buck to drag queen to 
shredded corpse. 

The Oresteia begins with a signal fire bouncing from summit to 
summit, Troy to Argos. Clytemnestra’s device to learn of Troy’s fall, it is 
the flame of rage passing from that war to this. It is the murderous chain 
of causality, the bloodline of three generations of the House of Atreus, 
like the red carpet trod by Agamemnon, the stream of his ow r n blood. 
The flare is also the poetic flame passing from Homer to Aeschylus, a 
cultural shift of genres from epic to tragedy. The third play of the 
Oresteia opens by mirroring the first. Transmission over time: Apollo’s 
priestess, the Pythoness, recites Delphi’s ownership from Mother Earth 
to Apollo, earth-cult to sky-cult, prefiguring the Olympians’ neutraliza¬ 
tion of the Furies. Aeschylus’ brilliant movements, lofty, systematic, and 
historical, are parodied by the Bacchae. Greece again catches fire from 
Asia, but for apocalypse, not evolution. History moves backwards, civili¬ 
zation relapsing into nature. Dionysus leads barbarian hordes of ma¬ 
rauders: Thebes is first, with all of Greece ahead. Teiresias prophesies, 
flouting Aeschylus’ Pythoness, that Dionysus w r ill leap the crags at 
Delphi. The Bacchae is a demolition derby, a catastrophe saga. And all 
fall down. Dionysus the invader is plague, fire, and flood, the titan of 
nature unbound. 

The Oresteia is Freudian psychodrama. Orestes, young ego, is 
swamped by the id of the Furies, until superego Apollo puts them in 
their place. Aeschylus makes an analogy between society and person¬ 
ality. The Bacchae disfigures society’s Apollonian constructions. Di¬ 
onysus is nature’s raw sex and violence. He is drugs, drink, dance—the 
dance of death. My generation of the Sixties may be the first since 
antiquity to have had so direct an experience of Dionysus. The Bacchae 
is our story, a panorama of intoxication, delusion, and self-destruction. 
Rock music is the naked power of Dionysus as Bromios, a the Thun¬ 
derer.” In the Bacchae , Apollonian sky-cult and political authority are 
bankrupt. Society is in its late or decadent phase. The ruling hierarchy 

Pagan Beauty 

* 0 } 

consists of the senile and the adolescent. Pentheus is like Homer’s 
callow suitors, a lost generation of pampered dandies unseasoned by 
war and adventure. Heir rather than founder, he is bully and braggart. 
Thebes is a moral vacuum into which Dionysus surges. He is a return of 
the repressed, the id of Aeschylus’ Furies bursting from bondage. 

Chronicling the birth of a religion out of the collapse of the old, the 
Bacchae strangely prefigures the New Testament. Four hundred years 
before Christ, Euripides depicts the conflict between armed authority 
and a popular cult. A long-haired nonconformist, claiming to be the son 
of God by a human woman, arrives at the capital city with a mob of 
scruffy disciples, outlandish provincials. Are the palms of Jesus’ march 
on Jerusalem a version of Dionysian thyrsi, potent pine wands? The 
demigod is arrested, interrogated, mocked, imprisoned. He offers no 
resistance, mildly yielding to his persecutors. His followers, like St. 
Peter, escape when their chains magically fall off. A ritual victim, sym¬ 
bolizing the god, is lofted onto a tree, then slaughtered and his body 
tom to bits. An earthquake levels the royal palace, like the earthquake 
during Jesus’ crucifixion that tears the Temple veil, symbol of the old 
order. Both gods are beloved of women and expand their rights. The 
play identifies transvestite Dionysus with the mother goddesses Cybele 
and Demeter. He avenges his mother’s defamation by maddening her 
sister Agave into infanticide. Agave, cavorting onstage with her bloody 
trophy, cradles the severed head of her son Pentheus in a grisly mock- 
pieta. Against her will, she mimes murderous mother nature. 

Euripides shows what is excluded from the supposed universality of 
Athenian tragedy. Dionysus’ eerie smile, playful and cruel, gives the lie 
to tragedy’s high seriousness. The salacious voyeurism into which Di¬ 
onysus lures Pentheus may be Euripides’ comment on the moral eva¬ 
sions of theater—the perverse voyeurism of the audience, the residue of 
untransformed barbarism in tragedy’s deaths and disasters. The Bac- 
chae’s messenger speeches are crammed with grotesque and mirac¬ 
ulous detail. Wild Maenads, girt with writhing snakes, give suck to 
wolves and gazelles. Water, wine, and milk pour from the soil. Women 
tear cattle to bits with bare hands. Snakes lick splattered blood from 
cheeks. Dismembering Pentheus, the Maenads play ball with his arms, 
feet, and ribs. Agave, foaming at the mouth, impales his head on her 
wand. In these savage, sportive speeches we look directly into daemonic 
fantasy, the hellish nightscape of dream and creative imagination. 
Shapeshifting Dionysus, who is bull, snake, lion, dissolves the Apollo¬ 
nian borderlines between objects and beings. He is ample, indiscrimi¬ 
nate, all-engulfing. 


Pagan Beauty 

The Bacchae deconstructs western personality. Pentheus, brought 
onstage in parts on a stretcher, has gone to pieces. He is shattered. He 
has lost his head. We speak of falling apart, having a breakdown, getting 
on top of things, getting it all together. Only in the west is there such 
conviction of the Apollonian unity of personality, hierarchically tidy and 
task-oriented. Turning Pentheus from a warrior calling for his armour 
to a drag queen primping with her hem, Dionysus melts the west’s 
armoured ego in moral and sexual ambivalence. The Bacchae returns 
drama to its severe ritual origins. What Aeschylus seized for Apollo, 
Euripides returns, bloodstained, to Dionysus. 

Tragedy springs from the clash between Apollo and Dionysus. Apol¬ 
lonian order, harmony, and light make a clear space in nature where the 
individual voice can be heard. Apollo is a lawgiver; Dionysus is beyond 
the law. Tragedy fades to melodrama when the individual becomes 
greater than the state. Lyric, invented earlier by the Greeks, is the genre 
of private experience. When lyric invades tragedy, a public mode, trag¬ 
edy is over. Tragedy makes sightlines , a mathematic of social space. 
Greek theater formalizes the eye-relations of group or polis: it captures 
and distances Dionysus, binding down nature to be looked-at and 
therefore cleansed. The extreme visibility of the elegant Parthenon, 
poised on the crest of the Acropolis, hovers above the ritual visibilities of 
the Theater of Dionysus, carved from the cliffside below. The Parthenon 
and the Oresteia were bom simultaneously as Apollonian ideas. To see, 
and to conquer by seeing. The rites of Dionysus, as depicted in the 
Bacchae , were participatory and free-form, to the point of chaos. The 
conversion of bacchanal into liturgy happened at Athens. The Greek 
drive for Apollonian conceptualization made program and structure out 
of the spring fertility festival of Dionysus. Greek theater was an exercise 
of the eye. The audience, sitting and looking, was strengthening the 
cultural suppression of chthonian nature. It was intensifying eye and 
mind in their war with the body. 

Apollo is the western eye victorious. Dionysus, I noted, is visceral and 
spasmodic: he is eating and feeling. Sparagmos is nature chewing, 
reducing objects to the soupy primeval swamp. On the temple pediment 
at Olympia, Apollo flings out his arm to quell the roiling centaurs, a 
wedding party broken into riot and rape. This fascist gesture is also 
made by the Apollo Belvedere, following his arrow with his eye. Apollo’s 
outstretched arm is the horizon line of sky-cult. It is the piercing sight¬ 
line of the aggressive western eye, the straight line invented by Egypt as 
a correction of mother nature’s sexy curves. At Olympia, the Apollonian 

Pagan Beauty 


straight arm suppresses the tacky tumult of chthonian nature. Apollo is 
superego grandly subduing the libidinous id, as in the Oresteia. The 
centaurs are man’s animal impulses, controlled by social form. Half 
horse, they symbolize Dionysian metamorphosis. 

Dionysus charges matter with motion and energy: objects are alive, 
and people are bestial. Apollo freezes the living into objects of art or 
contemplation. Apollonian objectification is fascist but sublime, enlarg¬ 
ing human power against the tyranny of nature. Apollo’s western eye 
gives us identity by making us visible. His outstretched arm reappears 
in Renaissance court ritual, preserved in classical ballet. Extension of 
the arm, needed to escort a woman in a hoop skirt, is activation of the 
upper body. It is literally courtly; that is, it creates a visible, hierarchic 
social space, the artistic arena in which ballet still moves. The Cauca¬ 
sian “line” of the dancer’s body is Apollo’s hard incised edge. His 
outflung arm represents head and upper body rebelling against chtho¬ 
nian pelvicism. Remember the hip-heavy Venus of Willendorf’s shriv¬ 
elled arms. Dionysus, with his Maenadic night rites, is the body as 
internal womb-space, tunneled for eating and procreating. Apollo, 
haughty, severe, and judgmental, makes the plane of the eye by which 
we rise above our murky bodies. 

Apollonian form was derived from Egypt but perfected in Greece. 
Coleridge says, “The Greeks idolized the finite,” while Northern Euro¬ 
peans have “a tendency to the infinite.” 1 Spengler similarly identifies 
the modem “Faustian soul” with “pure and limitless space.” Following 
Nietzsche, he calls the Apollonian “the principle of visible limits ” and 
applies it to the Greek city-state: “All that lay beyond the visual range of 
this political atom was alien.” The Greek statue, “the empirical visible 
body,” symbolizes classical reality: “the material, the optically definite, 
the comprehensible, the immediately present.” 2 The Greeks were, in 
my phrase, visionary materialists. They saw things and persons hard 
and glittery, radiant with Apollonian glamour. We know the Maenadic 
Dionysus mainly through the impressionistic medium of Archaic vase 
painting. He appears in statue form only when he loses his beard and 
female garb and turns ephebic Olympian, in the fifth century and after. 
High classic Athenian culture is based on Apollonian definitiveness and 
externality. “The whole tendency of Greek philosophy after Plato,” 
remarks Gilbert Murray, “was away from the outer world towards the 
world of the soul.” 3 The shift of Greek thought from outer to inner 
parallels the shift in art from the male to the female nude, from homo¬ 
sexual to heterosexual taste. Spengler says of Greek society, “What was 


Pagan Beauty 

far away, invisible, was ipso facto ‘not there’.” 4 I cited Karen Horney’s 
observation that a woman cannot see her own genitals. The Greek 
world-view was predicated on the model of absolute outwardness of 
male sex organs. Athenian culture flourished in externalities, the open 
air of the agora and the nudity of the palestra. There are no female 
nudes in major fifth-century art because female sexuality was imag¬ 
inatively “not there,” buried like the Furies turned Eumenides. To the 
old complaint that the Greeks gave their statues the genitals of little 
boys, one could reply that the male nude offers the whole body as a 
projected genital. The modestly stooping Knidian Aphrodite marks the 
turn toward spiritual and sexual intemality. It is the end of Apollo. 

Kalokagathia, the beautiful and (or as) the good, was implicit in the 
Greek world-view from the start. Apollonian idealization of form was 
already present in Homer, while the visual arts were still groping toward 
a style. Homer’s cinematic pictorialism put armoured western person¬ 
ality on the literaiy map. Jane Harrison suggestively refers, without 
elaboration, to “the Homeric horror of formlessness .” 5 1 find this horror 
in the Iliad's epic battle between Achilles and the river Scamander, a 
strange episode which oscillates surreally between terror and comedy. 
The river is in a fluid half-state of identity, a personification dilating and 
contracting at will. It thinks and speaks like a demigod, then diffuses 
into the immensity of natural force, beyond human scale. Greek Ar¬ 
chaic art tucked sprightly river or wind gods into the comer of temple 
pediments. They are gleeful twisty creatures, a man’s face and torso 
ending in a blue corkscrew. Homer’s Scamander is good-natured but 
easily provoked. It protests its defilement with blood and gore by raven¬ 
ing Achilles. There is a long test of wills. Weapons are useless against 
the “foaming cataracts” and “black wall of water.” Achilles is buried in 
a “mighty billow,” the earth swept from beneath his feet. 6 The episode 
passes in nightmare slow motion. Human size, human strength are not 
enough. Achilles survives only because Hephaestus intervenes, scald¬ 
ing the river with fire and turning it to steam. It is a war of the elements. 
Only nature can fight nature. The scene switches to Olympus, where the 
gods are in a rumpus. Ares, Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis, and Hera fling 
insults and cuff each other about, while Zeus laughs in delight. This 
book of the Iliad is an allegorical tableau in which formlessness opposes 
form. It recapitulates the birth of object and person out of the capricious 
flux of nature. Identity is imperiled but fights its way to visibility and 
freedom. The Olympian gods, with their radiant specificity, culminate 
the evolution of form. Sharp words, sharp blows: the gods are hard; they 
wear the body-armour of Apollonian contour. Fright turns to laughter. 

Pagan Beauty 


The war of man and nature ends in the charm of sky-cult. Homer brings 
form out of the flood of chthonian darkness. 

The moral principle of Greek paganism, I propose, was reverence for 
the integrity of the human form. About to bestow immortality upon her 
favorite, Tydeus, Athena was repulsed by his brutish death: in his last 
agony, he broke open the skull of his enemy, Melanippus, and devoured 
his brains. Apollonianism is unity and purity of form. Through her 
many disguises, Athena has a pristine persona, an untouched Apollo¬ 
nian cell of self to which she always returns. Dionysus, on the other 
hand, is truly Protean, the sum of his tumbling roles. In Homer, Athena 
may zestfully zip about, but in Athens she stands still. The two colossi of 
the Acropolis showed her in regal Apollonian stasis. Even her hand, 
perch of a winged Victory, rested on a pedestal. High classic figures have 
a serene equilibrium of face and posture. Their Apollonian contour 
keeps personality in and nature out. 

Euripides, shrewd charter of Greek decline, shows Homer’s chtho¬ 
nian river in new flood. Like the Bacchae , Medea uses Greek legend to 
symbolize the fall of Apollonian Athens. Within a year of its production, 
the city was ravaged by a plague that put the ugliness, vulgarity, and 
passivity of the human body on public display. Thus ended, I say, 
Athens’ Apollonian idealizations. Ephebic male beauty had an Achilles 
heel, where the hand of mother nature grips us. An amazing passage in 
Medea prophetically depicts profanation of the human form by re¬ 
pressed forces beneath and beyond Greek culture. Foreign Medea, 
spumed by Jason, sends poisoned wedding gifts to his bride, daughter 
of the king of Corinth. The death of princess and king is one of the most 
horrifying scenes in literature. A messenger describes the girl receiving 
and donning the fancy robes and diadem. She smugly pats her hair, 
smiling in the mirror; she parades through her chambers, looking 
herself up and down. Suddenly, she trembles and staggers. 

A double plague assailed her. The golden diadem on her head 
emitted a strange flow of devouring fire, while the fine robes were 
eating up the poor girl’s white flesh. All aflame, she jumps from her 
seat and flees, shaking her head and hair this way and that, trying 
to throw off the crown. But the golden band held firmly, and after 
she had shaken her hair more violently, the fire began to blaze 
twice as fiercely. Overcome by the agony she falls on the ground, 
and none but her father could have recognized her. The position of 
her eyes could not be distinguished, nor the beauty of her face. The 
blood, clotted with fire, dripped from the crown of her head, and 


Pagan Beauty 

the flesh melted from her bones, like resin from a pine tree, as the 
poisons ate their unseen way. It was a fearful sight. All were afraid 
to touch the corpse, taught by what had happened to her. 

The king rushes in. Weeping and lamenting, he throws himself on his 
daughter’s body, embracing and kissing her. When he tries to stand up: 

He stuck to the fine robes, like ivy to a laurel bush. His struggles 
were horrible. He would try to free a leg, but the girl’s body stuck to 
his. And if he pulled violently, he tore his shrunken flesh off his 
bones. At last his life went out; doomed, he gave up the ghost. Side 
by side lie the two bodies, daughter and old father . 7 

We listen to the messenger’s eloquent formal speech with a stunned 
combination of admiration and physical revulsion. It is a daemonic aria, 
a flight of decadent imagination. The princess is simply a cipher. Name¬ 
less, she never appears in the play. But Euripides has particularized her 
execution with terrible and uncanny detail, threatening our sympathy 
for his plaintiff protagonist. Medea, gifted niece of the sorceress Circe, 
is a vehicle of chthonian disorder. She is a metamorphosist who can 
change gold to dross, joy to horror. 

The scene prefigures the transition in Greek art from high classicism 
to Hellenistic style. Father tangled with daughter is like Laocoon dying 
with his strangled sons. The Apollonian borders of the body are burst 
through. The passage’s emotional power comes from the brutal contrast 
between the princess’s smirking vanity and the sudden melting of her 
features beyond recognition. Holocaust and apocalypse. She stands at 
ground zero, incinerated by a distant invader. Primping princess is 
sister to primping Pentheus, self-intoxicated in the electric moment 
before lightning strikes. Mirror, crown, palace: the princess is Apollo¬ 
nian selfhood and social hierarchy. For the feminist Euripides, looking 
backward at Pheidian Athens as Aeschylus looked forward, Greek 
sexual personae are shallow and conventional. Fatuous Jason, like the 
segregated Athenian audience, makes rigid definitions of male and 
female. The clotheshorse princess falls victim to chthonian overflow. 
The Apollonian principium individuationis of father and daughter are 
abolished. Tossing her flaming head, the princess is goaded into a 
Maenadic dance of death. Her flesh melts “like resin from a pine tree”: 
she runs with Dionysian fluids. The princess dies by the sedition of her 
own body, upon which her father is crucified, like Pentheus on the fir 
tree. Flesh tom in sparagmos, they lie scorched by ecstasy and annihila¬ 

Pagan Beauty 


Euripides makes two planes of reality collide. Into the world of 
glittering Apollonian appearances springs a form-dissolving fountain of 
chthonian force, erupting from primeval chaos. The intelligible mo¬ 
mentarily loses to the irrational, manifested as a fiery lava flow cruelly 
generated by the human body itself. The king, trapped by his tar-baby 
daughter, turns into the gummy log of Hamlet senior, a crusted corpse 
in a garden. Euripides destroys the Oresteia’s psychodrama: when the 
princess as young ego is swamped by id, no Apollo rides to the rescue. 
The chthonian triumphs in Medea , as in the later Bacchae. The two 
plays are symmetrical: citizenship is denied to a sexually ambiguous, 
magic-working alien, who vengefully debases and liquidates society’s 
arrogant hierarchs. 

Euripides savors the sexually grotesque. King and blinded princess 
cleave together in a parody of union, a reply to Sophocles’ incest-drama. 
Male-willed Medea, who slaughters her children, dismembers her 
brother, and dupes Pelias’ daughters into killing their father, spreads 
perversion like a plague. As a Scythian witch, she can violate the uncon¬ 
scious of her victims. In this tour de force of sadomasochistic descrip¬ 
tion, Euripides shows Greek culture in mental and physical breakdown. 
Spengler says, “ ‘Soul’ for the real Hellene was in last analysis the form 
of his body .” 8 The princess’ meltdown of face and flesh dissolves what 
neurologists call the proprioceptive sense, by which we know ourselves 
in the concrete world. Personality is palpable and visible, an Apollonian 
self-projection. Zevedei Barbu says of schizophrenics, “The disintegra¬ 
tion of the self seems to be related to the deterioration of the perception 
of form .” 9 In Medea , body-image disintegrates as society self-destructs. 
Form is created by the Apollonian eye: King Creon’s lament over his 
mutilated daughter is therefore an elegy for Athenian high classi¬ 

The Athenian cult of beauty had a supreme theme: the 
beautiful boy. Euripides, the first decadent artist, substitutes a bloody 
moon for the golden Apollonian sun. Medea is Athens’ worst nightmare 
about women. She is nature’s revenge, Euripides’ dark answer to the 
beautiful boy. 

Though the homosexuality of Greek high culture has been perfectly 
obvious since Winckelmann, the facts have been suppressed or magni¬ 
fied, depending on period and point of view. Late nineteenth-century 
aestheticism, for example, was full of heady effusions about “Greek 
love.” Yet Harvard’s green and red Loeb Library translations of classical 
literature, published early this century, are heavily censored. The pen- 

II o 

Pagan Beauty 

dulum has now swung toward realism. In Greek Homosexuality { 1978), 
K. J. Dover wittily reconstructs from the evidence of vase painting the 
actual mechanics of sexual practice. But I depart from sociological 
rationales for Greek love. For me, aesthetics are primary. The Athenian 
turn away from women toward boys was a brilliant act of conceptualiza¬ 
tion. Unjust and ultimately self-thwarting, it was nevertheless a crucial 
movement in the formation of western culture and identity. 

The Greek beautiful boy, as I remarked earlier, is one of the west’s 
great sexual personae. Like Artemis, he has no exact equivalent in other 
cultures. His cult returns whenever Apollonianism rebounds, as in 
Italian Renaissance art. The beautiful boy is an androgyne, luminously 
masculine and feminine. He has male muscle structure but a dewy 
girlishness. In Greece he inhabited the world of hard masculine action. 
His body was on view, striving nude in the palestra. Greek athletics, like 
Greek law, were theater, a public agon. They imposed mathematics on 
nature: how fast? how far? how strong? The beautiful boy was the focus 
of Apollonian space. All eyes were on him. His broad-shouldered, 
narrow-waisted body was a masterwork of Apollonian articulation, 
every muscle group edged and contoured. There was even a ropy new 
muscle, looping the hips and genitals. Classic Athens found the fatty 
female body unbeautiful, because it was not a visible instrument of 
action. The beautiful boy is Adonis, the Great Mother’s son-lover, now 
removed from nature and cleansed of the chthonian. Like Athena, he is 
reborn through males and clad in the Apollonian armour of his own 
hard body. 

Major Greek art begins in the late seventh century b.c. with the 
Archaic kouros (“youth”), a more than life-size nude statue of a vic¬ 
torious athlete (fig. 12). He is monumental human assertion, imagined 
in Apollonian stillness. He stands like Pharaoh, fists clenched and one 
foot forward. But Greek artists wanted their work to breathe and move. 
What was unchanged for thousands of years in Egypt leaps to life in a 
single century. The muscles curve and swell; the heavy wiglike hair 
curls and tufts. The smiling kouros is the first fully free-standing sculp¬ 
ture in art. Strict Egyptian symmetry was preserved until the early 
classic Kritios Boy , who looks one way while shifting his weight to the 
opposite leg (fig. 13). In the broken record of Greek artifacts, the Kritios 
Boy is the last kouros. He is not a type but a real boy, serious and regal. 
His smooth, shapely body has a white sensuality. The Archaic kouros 
was always callipygian, the large buttocks more stressed and valued 
than the face. But the buttocks of the Kritios Boy have a feminine 
refinement, as erotic as breasts in Venetian painting. The contrapposto 

Pagan Beauty 


flexes one buttock and relaxes the other. The artist imagines them as 
apple and pear, glowing and compact. 

For three hundred years, Greek art is filled with beautiful boys, in 
stone and bronze. We know the name of none of them. The old- 
fashioned generic term, “Apollo,” had a certain wisdom, for the solitary, 
self-supporting kouros was an Apollonian idea, a liberation of the eye. 
His nudity was polemical. The Archaic kore (“maiden”) was always 
clothed and utilitarian, one hand proffering a votive plate. The kouros 
stands heroically bare in Apollonian externality and visibility. Unlike 
two-dimensional pharaonic sculptures, he invites the strolling spectator 
to admire him in the round. He is not king or god but human youth. 
Divinity and stardom fall upon the beautiful boy. Epiphany is secu¬ 
larized and personality ritualized. The kouros records the first cult of 
personality in western history. It is an icon of the worship of beauty, a 
hierarchism self-generated rather than dynastic. 

The kouros bore strange fruit. From its bold clarity and unity of 

I 12 

Pagan Beauty 

design came all major Greek sculpture, by the fourth century female as 
well as male. Hellenic art spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean 
as Hellenistic art. From that grew medieval Byzantine art in Greece, 
Turkey, and Italy, with its dour mosaic icons of Christ, Virgin, and saint 
(fig. 14). The Italian Renaissance begins in the Byzantine style. Thus 
there is a direct artistic line from Archaic Greek kouroi to the standing 
saints of Italian altarpieces and the stained-glass windows of Gothic 
cathedrals. Homoerotic iconicism goes full circle in the popular Italian 
theme, St. Sebastian, a beautiful seminude youth pierced by phallic 
arrows (fig. 15). Those arrows are glances of the aggressive western eye, 
solar shafts of Apollo the archer. The Greek kouros, inheriting Egypt’s 
cold Apollonian eye, created the great western fusion of sex, power, and 


14. Byzantine Saints, 1138—1148, 

Pagan Beauty 


15. Sandro Botticelli, 
St. Sebastian, 1474. 

In Greece the beautiful boy was always beardless, frozen in time. At 
manhood, he became a lover of boys himself. The Greek boy, like the 
Christian saint, was a martyr, victim of nature’s tyranny. His beauty 
could not last and so was caught full-flower by Apollonian sculpture. 
There are hundreds of pots, shards, and graffiti hailing so-and-so kalos , 
“the beautiful,” flirtatious public praise of males by males. Dover dem¬ 
onstrates the criteria governing depiction of male genitalia, opposite to 
ours: a small thin penis was fashionable, a large penis vulgar and 
animalistic. Even brawny Hercules was shown with boy’s genitals. 

Pagan Beauty 


Therefore, despite its political patriarchy, Athens cannot be consid¬ 
ered—horrid word—a phallocracy. On the contrary, the Greek penis 
was edited down from an exclamation point to a dash. The beautiful boy 
was desired but not desiring. He occupied a presexual or suprasexual 
dimension, the Greek aesthetic ideal. In convention, his adult admirer 
could seek orgasm, while he remained unaroused. 

The beautiful boy was an adolescent, hovering between a female past 
and male future. J. H. Van den Berg claims the eighteenth century 
invented adolescence . 10 It is true children once passed more directly 
into adult responsibilities than they do now. In Catholicism, for exam¬ 
ple, seven is the dawn of moral consciousness. After one’s First Com¬ 
munion, it’s hell or high water. Brooding identity crises were indeed the 
Romantic creations of Rousseau and Goethe. But Van den Berg is 
wrong to make adolescence entirely modem. The Greeks saw it and 
formalized it in art. Greek pederasty honored the erotic magnetism of 
male adolescents in a way that today brings the police to the door. 
Children are more conscious and perverse than parents like to think. I 
agree with Bruce Benderson that children can and do choose. The ado¬ 
lescent male, one step over puberty, is dreamy and removed, oscillating 
between vigor and languor. He is a girl-boy, masculinity shimmering 
and blurred, as if seen through a cloudy fragment of ancient glass. J. Z. 
Eglinton cites images of youthful “bloom” in Greek poetry: “The ado¬ 
lescent in bloom is a synthesis of male and female beauties .” 11 The 
slightly older ephebos gained in gravity but retained a half-feminine 
glamour. We see it in the pedimental Apollo, the Delphic Charioteer, 
the bronze Apollo at Chatsworth, the white-lekythos Eretrian warrior 
seated before a gravestone. These youths have a distinctly ancient 
Greek face: high brow, strong straight nose, girlishly fleshy cheeks, full 
petulant mouth, and short upper lip. It is the face of Elvis Presley, Lord 
Byron, and Bronzino’s glossy Mannerist blue boy. Freud saw the an¬ 
drogyny in the Greek adolescent: “Among the Greeks, where the most 
manly men were found among inverts, it is quite obvious that it was not 
the masculine character of the boy which kindled the love of man; it was 
his physical resemblance to woman as well as his feminine psychic 
qualities, such as shyness, demureness, and the need of instruction and 
help .” 12 Certain boys, especially blondes, seem to carry adolescent 
beauty into adulthood. They form an enduring class of homosexual 
taste that I call the Billy Budd topos, fresh, active, and ephebic. 

The beautiful boy is the Greek angel, a celestial visitor from the 
Apollonian realm. His purity is inadvertently revealed in Joseph Camp¬ 
bell’s negative critique of fifth-century Athens: “Everything that we 

Pagan Beauty 


read of it has a wonderful adolescent atmosphere of opalescent, time¬ 
less skies—untouched by the vulgar seriousness of a heterosexual com¬ 
mitment to mere life. The art, too, of the lovely standing nude, for all its 
grace and charm, is finally neuter—like the voice of a singing boy.” 
Campbell quotes Heinrich Zimmer’s praise of the “heterosexual flavor” 
and yogic awareness of Hindu sculpture: “Greek art was derived from 
experiences of the eye; Hindu from those of the circulation of the 
blood .” 13 Campbell’s “neuter” is a blank, a moral nothing. But the 
beautiful boy’s androgyny is visionary and exalted. Let us take Camp¬ 
bell’s own example, “the voice of a singing boy.” In a Seraphim record¬ 
ing of Faure’s Requiem that substitutes the King’s College choir for the 
usual women, the treble parts are taken by boys from eight to thirteen. 
Alec Robertson’s review seeks a tonality of emotion for which our only 
language is religious: boys’ voices “add an unforgettable radiance and 
serenity to their part, impossible to sopranos, however good”; the solo¬ 
ist’s singing has “an ethereal beauty that no words can describe .” 14 The 
rosy English or Austrian choirboy, disciplined, reserved, and heart- 
stoppingly beautiful, is a symbol of spiritual and sexual illumination, 
fused in the idealizing Greek manner. We see the same thing in Bot¬ 
ticelli’s exquisite long-haired boy-angels. These days, especially in 
America, boy-love is not only scandalous and criminal but somehow in 
bad taste. On the evening news, one sees handcuffed teachers, priests, 
or Boy Scout leaders hustled into police vans. Therapists call them 
maladjusted, emotionally immature. But beauty has its own laws, in¬ 
consistent with Christian morality. As a woman, I feel free to protest that 
men today are pilloried for something that was rational and honorable 
in Greece at the height of civilization. 

The Greek beautiful boy was a living idol of the Apollonian eye. As a 
sexual persona, the kouros represents that tense relation betweeen eye 
and object that I saw in Nefertiti and that was absent in the Venus of 
Willendorf, with her easy, forgiving, spongy female amplitude. Zimmer 
correctly opposes heterosexual Hindu “circulation of the blood” to 
Greek aesthetics of the eye. The beautiful boy is a rebuke to mother 
nature, an escape from the labyrinth of the body, with its murky womb 
and bowels. Woman is the Dionysian miasma, the world of fluids, the 
chthonian swamp of generation. Athens, says Campbell, was “un¬ 
touched by the vulgar seriousness of a heterosexual commitment to 
mere life.” Yes, mere life is indeed rejected by the idealizing Apollonian 
mode. It is the divine human privilege to make ideas greater than 
nature. We are bom into the indignities of the body, with its relentless 
inner movements pushing us moment by moment toward death. Greek 

Pagan Beauty 

lI 7 

Apollonianism, freezing the human form into absolute male externality, 
is a triumph of mind over matter. Apollo, slaying the Python at Delphi, 
the navel of the world, halts the flood of time, for the coiled serpent we 
carry in our abdomen is the eternal wave-motion of female fluidity. 
Every beautiful boy is an Icarus seeking the Apollonian sun. He escapes 
the labyrinth only to fall into nature’s sea of dissolution. 

Cults of beauty have been persistently homosexual from antiquity to 
today’s hair salons and houses of couture. Professional beautification of 
women by homosexual men is a systematic reconceptualizing of the 
brute facts of female nature. As at the nineteenth-century fin de siecle, 
the aesthete is always male, never female. There is no lesbian parallel to 
Greek worship of the adolescent. The great Sappho may have fallen in 
love with girls, but to all evidence she internalized rather than exter¬ 
nalized her passions. Her most famous poem invents the hostile dis¬ 
tance between sexual personae that will have so long a history in west¬ 
ern love poetry. Gazing across a room at her beloved sitting with a man, 
she suffers a physical convulsion of jealousy, humiliation, and helpless 
resignation. This separation is not the aesthetic distance of Apollonian 
Athens but a desert of emotional deprivation. It is a gap that can be 
closed—as Aphrodite laughingly promises Sappho in another poem. 
Lascivious delectation of the eye is conspicuously missing in female 
eroticism. Visionary idealism is a male art form. The lesbian aesthete 
does not exist. But if there were one, she would have learned from the 
perverse male mind. The eye-intense pursuit of beauty is an Apollonian 
correction of life in our mother-bom bodies. 

The beautiful boy, suspended in time, is physicality without physiol¬ 
ogy. He does not eat, drink, or reproduce. Dionysus is deeply immersed 
in time—rhythm, music, dance, drunkenness, gluttony, orgy. The beau¬ 
tiful boy as angel floats above the turmoil of nature. Angels, in Judaism 
too, defy chthonian femaleness. This is why the angel, though sexless, is 
always a youthful male. Eastern religion does not have our angels of 
incorporeal purity, for two reasons. A “messenger” (angelos) or media¬ 
tor between the divine and human is unnecessary, since the two realms 
are coexistent. Second, eastern femaleness is symbolically equivalent to 
and harmonious with maleness—though this has never improved real 
women’s social status. 

The pink-cheeked beautiful boy is emotional vemality, spring only. 
He is a partial statement about reality. He is exclusive, a product of 
aristocratic taste. He flees the superfluity of matter, the womb of female 
nature devouring and spewing out creatures. Dionysus, we noted, is 
“the Many,” all-inclusive and ever-changing. Life’s totality is summer 


Pagan Beauty 

and winter, floridity and devastation. The Great Mother is both seasons 
in her benevolent and malevolent halves. If the beautiful boy is pink and 
white, she is the red and purple of her labial maw. The beautiful boy 
represents a hopeless attempt to separate imagination from death and 
decay. He is form seceding from form-making, natura naturata dream¬ 
ing itself free of natura naturans. As an epiphany, eye-created, he binds 
up the many into a transient vision of the one, like art itself. 

Besides the Kritios Boy , the preeminent examples of this persona are 
the bronze Benevento Boy of the Louvre (fig. 16), the Antinous sculp¬ 
tures commissioned by the emperor Hadrian (fig. 17), Donatello’s 
David, and Thomas Mann’s Tadzio in Death in Venice. The Apollonian 
is a mode of silence, suppressing rhythm to focus the eye. The beautiful 
boy, sexually self-complete, is sealed in silence, behind a wall of aristo¬ 
cratic disdain. The adolescent dreaminess of the Antinous sculptures is 
not true inwardness but a melancholy premonition of death. Antinous 
drowned, like Icarus. The beautiful boy dreams but neither thinks nor 
feels. His eyes fix on nothing. His face is a pale oval upon which nothing 
is written. A real person could not remain at this stage without deca¬ 
dence and mummification. The beautiful boy is cruel in his indif¬ 
ference, remoteness, and serene self-containment. We rarely see these 
things in a girl, but when we do, as in the magnificent portrait photo¬ 
graphs of the young Virginia Woolf, we sense catatonia and autism. 
Narcissistic beauty in a postadolescent (like Hitchcock’s Mamie) may 
mean malice and ruthlessness, a psychopathic amorality. There is dan¬ 
ger in beauty. 

The beautiful boy has flowing or richly textured hyacinthine hair, the 
only luxuriance in this chastity. Long male hair, sometimes wrapped 
round the head, was an aristocratic fashion in Athens. Antinous’ thick 
hair is crisply layered, as in Van Dyck’s silky princes or Seventies rock 
stars. In its artful negligence and allure, the hair traps the beholder’s 
eye. It is a nimbus, a pre-Christian halo, scintillating with fiery flakes of 
stars. The beautiful boy, glittering with charisma, is matter transformed, 
penetrated by Apollonian light. Greek visionary materialism makes 
hard crystal of our gross fleshiness. The beautiful boy is without motive 
force or deed; hence he is not a hero. Because of his emotional detach¬ 
ment, he is not a heroine. He occupies an ideal space between male and 
female, effect and affect. Like the Olympians, he is an objet d'art , which 
also affects without acting or being acted upon. The beautiful boy is the 
product of chance or destiny, a sport thrown up by the universe. He is, I 
suggested, a secular saint. Light makes beautiful boys incandescent. 
Divinity swoops down to ennoble them, like the eagle falling upon 

i6. The Benevento Boy: Roman copy from the Augustan period, first century 
b.c., of a Greek work of the fifth century b.c. Found at Herculaneum. 
Remnants of two sprays of wild olive, the victor’s crown at Olympia. Acquired 
by Count Tyskiewicz in the 1860s from a Naples dealer, who had bought it in 
nearby Benevento. 



Pagan Beauty 

17. Antinous . Hadrianic Roman sculpture in the Greek style, second centuiy 
a.d. Museo Nazionale, Naples. 

Ganymede, who is kidnapped to Olympus, unlike the pack of female 
lovers like Leda whom Zeus casually abandons as types of the genera¬ 
tive mother. 

In the Phaedrus, Plato sets forth Greek homosexuality’s ritualization 
of the eye. Socrates says the man who gazes upon “a god-like counte¬ 
nance or physical form,” a copy of “true beauty,” is overcome by a 
shudder of awe, “an unusual fever and perspiration”: “Beholding it, he 

Pagan Beauty 


reverences it as he would a god; and if he were not afraid of being 
accounted stark mad, he would offer sacrifice to the beloved as to a holy 
image of divinity .” 15 Beauty is the first step of a ladder leading to God. 
Writing in the fourth century about memories of the fifth, Plato is 
already postclassical. He is suspicious of art, which he banishes from his 
ideal republic. Visionary materialism has failed. In the Phaedrus , how¬ 
ever, we still see the aesthetic distance vibrating between Greek per¬ 
sonae. Plato has Sappho’s fever, but it is cooled by the dominating and 
dominated western eye. In Greece, beauty was sacred and ugliness 
or deformity hateful. When Odysseus bludgeons Thersites, a lame, 
hunchback commoner, Homer’s heroes laugh. Christ’s ministry to the 
lepers was unthinkable in Greek terms. In the Greek cult of beauty, 
there was mystical elevation and hierarchical submission, but signifi¬ 
cantly without moral obligation. 

The Greek principle of domination by the beautiful person as work of 
art is implicit in western culture, rising to view at charged historical 
moments. I see it in Dante and Beatrice and in Petrarch and Laura. 
There must be distance, of space or time. The eye elects a narcissistic 
personality as galvanizing object and formalizes the relation in art. The 
artist imposes a hieratic sexual character on the beloved, making him¬ 
self the receptor (or more feminine receptacle) of the beloved’s mana. 
The structure is sadomasochistic. Western sexual personae are hostile 
with dramatic tension. Naturalistic ally, Beatrice’s expansion into a gi¬ 
gantic heavenly body is grandiose and even absurd, but she achieves her 
preeminence through the poet’s sexually hierarchizing western imagi¬ 
nation. The aesthetic distance between personae is like a vacuum be¬ 
tween poles, discharging electric tension by a bolt of lightning. Little is 
known of the real Beatrice and Laura. But I think they resembled the 
beautiful boy of homosexual tradition: they were dreamy, remote, autis¬ 
tic, lost in a world of androgynous self-completion. Beatrice, after all, 
was barely eight when Dante fell in love with her in her crimson dress. 
Laura’s impenetrability inspired the “fire and ice” metaphor of Pe¬ 
trarch’s sonnets, which revolutionized European poetry. “Fire and ice” 
is western alchemy. It is the chills and fever of Sappho’s and Plato’s 
uncanny love experience. Agonized ambivalence of body and mind was 
Sappho’s contribution to poetry, imitated by Catullus and transmitted to 
us through folk ballads and pop torch songs. Western love, Denis de 
Rougemont shows, is unhappy or death-ridden. In Dante and Petrarch, 
self-frustrating love is not neurotic but ritualistic and conceptualizing. 
The west makes art and thought out of the cold manipulation of our 
hard sexual personae. 


Pagan Beauty 

Domination by the beautiful personality is central to Romanticism, 
specifically in its dark Coleridgean line passing through Poe and Bau¬ 
delaire to Wilde. The Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, imitating 
his namesake, invented his own Beatrice, the sickly Elizabeth Siddal, 
who obsessively appears throughout his work. That Siddal, like Beatrice 
and Laura, was a female version of the beautiful boy is suggested by 
the speed with which her face turned into the face of beautiful young 
men in the paintings of Rossetti’s disciple, Edward Burne-Jones. The 
beautiful boy’s narcissistic remoteness and latent autism became som¬ 
nambulism in Rossetti’s pensive Muse. Antinous, Beatrice, Laura, and 
Elizabeth Siddal passed with ease into art because in their cool, un¬ 
touchable impersonality they already had the abstract removal of an 
objet d’art. Transcendance of sexual identity is the key. 

The bungling brooder, John Hinckley, infatuated with the boyish 
Jodie Foster, replicates Dante’s submission to distant Beatrice. Dante’s 
love was just as preposterous, but he made poetry out of it. The un- 
talented literalist, failing to recognize the aggression already inherent 
in the western eye, picks up a gun instead of a pen. The sexual ambigu¬ 
ity of Jodie Foster’s onscreen persona supports my point about Beatrice. 
The absence of moral obligation in this sexual religiosity explains the 
amorality of aestheticism. Oscar Wilde believed the beautiful person 
has absolute rights to commit any act. Beauty replaces morality as the 
divine order. As Cocteau said, following Wilde, “The privileges of 
beauty are enormous.” 

The beautiful boy, the object of all eyes, looks downward or away or 
keeps his eyes in soft focus because he does not recognize the reality of 
other persons or things. By making the glamourous Alcibiades burst 
drunk into the Symposium, ending the intellectual debate, Plato is 
commenting in retrospect on the political damage done to Athens by its 
fascination with beauty. Spoiled, captivating Alcibiades was to betray 
his city and end in exile and disgrace. When the beautiful boy leaves the 
realm of contemplation for the realm of action, the result is chaos and 
crime. Wilde’s Alcibiades, Dorian Gray, makes a science of corruption. 
Refusing to accept the early death that preserved the beauty of Adonis 
and Antinous, Dorian compacts with a fellow art object, his portrait, 
projecting human mutability onto it. The ephebic Dorian is serene and 
heartless, the beautiful boy as destroyer. In Death in Venice , Mann’s 
homage to Wilde, the beautiful boy does not even have to act to destroy. 
His blinding Apollonian light is a radiation disintegrating the moral 

The beautiful boy is the representational paradigm of high classic 

Pagan Beauty 


Athens. He is pure Apollonian objectification, a public sex object. His 
lucid contour and hardness originate in Egypt’s monumental architec¬ 
tonics and in Homer’s gleaming Olympian sky-cult. The Apollonian 
beautiful boy dramatizes the special horror of dissolved form to Phei- 
dian Athens, with its passionate vision of the sunlit human figure. Unity 
of image and unity of personality were the Athenian norm, satirized by 
Euripides in his chthonian dismemberments, symbol of fragmentation 
and multiplicity. The androgynous beautiful boy has an androgynous 
sponsor, the male-bom Uranian Aphrodite whom Plato identifies with 
homosexual love. While the Archaic kouros is vigorously masculine, the 
early and high classic beautiful boy perfectly harmonizes masculine 
and feminine. With the Hellenistic tilt toward women, prefigured by 
Euripides, the beautiful boy slides toward the feminine, a symptom of 

Praxiteles registers this shift in his ephebic Hermes (ca. 350 b.c.), 
which misaligns the elegance of classic contrapposto. Hermes awk¬ 
wardly leans away from the engaged leg rather than toward it, curving 
his hips in a peculiar swish. His arm, supporting infant Dionysus, rests 
heavily on a stump. Famell says of the Praxitelean “languor,” “Even the 
gods are becoming fatigued.” 16 Kenneth Clark finds in high classic 
Greek art a perfect “physical balance of strength and grace.” 17 In the 
Hellenistic beautiful boy, grace drains strength. Rhys Carpenter sees 
Praxiteles’ Knidian Aphrodite as a sexual degeneration of Polycleitus’ 
canonical fifth-century Doryphoros , a “languid devitalization of the 
male victor-athlete into an equivalent feminine canon.” 18 Hauser says 
of the Hermes and Lysippus’ Apoxyomenos , “They give the impression 
of being dancers rather than athletes.” 19 Jane Harrison denounces 
Praxiteles’ Hermes on the grounds that as Kourotrophos (“boy-rearer”) 
he “usurps the function of the mother”: “The man doing woman’s work 
has all the inherent futility and something of the ugly dissonance of the 
man masquerading in woman’s clothes.” 20 Again, Harrison recognizes 
sexual duality but finds it repugnant. Clark points out that wherever 
contrapposto appears in world art, it shows Greek influence, even in 
India, to which it was carried by Alexander. Originally a male motif, it 
entered female iconography to become “a vivid symbol of desire.” 21 
What seems overlooked is that contrapposto was erotic from the start, 
in the dignified exhibitionism of the early classic kouros. Hellenistic 
ephebes use a more extreme hip-shot pose, ripe with sexual solicitation. 
It is the street stance of harlot and drag queen, ancient or modem. Male 
contrapposto with hand on hip, as in Donatello’s David , is provocative 
and epicene. 


Pagan Beauty 

Portraits of Dionysus illustrate the sensual feminization of male per¬ 
sonae in Greek art. The Archaic transvestite Dionysus fuses a bearded 
adult man with a sexually mature woman. In the fifth century, he loses 
his beard and becomes indistinguishable from the ephebic Apollo of the 
Parthenon frieze. The Hellenistic Dionysus is a voluptuously appealing 
beautiful boy. A third-century head at Thasos could be mistaken for a 
woman, a movie queen, with thick shoulder-length hair and expectant 
parted lips. Scholars have generally been repelled by these beautiful 
objects, with their overt homoeroticism. Even Marie Delcourt, in her 
excellent study, Hermaphrodite , attacks the “effeminacy” of the Hellen¬ 
istic Dionysus, which “pandered” to Greek homosexual desire. 22 But it 
was the Hellenistic Dionysus and Apollo who were the androgynous 
models for the exquisite Antinous sculptures. 

The long, decentralized Hellenistic era was like our own time, lively, 
anxious, and sensationalistic. Hellenistic art teems with sex and vio¬ 
lence. High classic Greek art honors ideal youth, while Hellenistic art is 
full of babies, brutes, and drunks. Athenian eroticism is pornographic 
in kitchen and tavern pottery but sublime and restrained in major 
sculpture. Hellenistic sculpture, on the other hand, likes large-scale 
wrestling and rapine—massacre, pugilism, and priapism. Hellenistic 
sex is in such free flow that the gender of shattered statues can be 
doubtful. Misidentifications have been common. 

Dover speaks of the change in homosexual taste in Athens from the 
fifth century, which glorified athletic physiques, to the fourth, when 
softer, passive minions came into vogue. It is in the fourth century that 
the hermaphrodite first appears in classical art. The plush creature with 
female breasts manages to expose its male genitals, either by a slipping 
cloak or a tunic boldly raised in ritual exhibitionism. The Sleeping 
Hermaphrodite influenced later art, like eighteenth-century reclining 
female nudes. From one side, the drowsy figure displays ambiguously 
smooth buttocks and the half-swell of a breast; from the other, female 
breast and male genitals pop out clear as day. I found the Villa Borghese 
copy prudently pushed against the wall to discourage inspection! The 
decorative popularity of hermaphrodites is paradoxical, for everywhere 
in antiquity the birth of a real hermaphrodite was greeted with horror. 
This condition, hypospadias, may be examined ad stuporem in the 
hundreds of photographs of Hugh Hampton Young’s pioneering text, 
Genital Abnormalities , Hermaphroditism, and Related Adrenal Diseases 
(1937). Since a hermaphrodite birth was a bad omen presaging war, 
disaster, or pestilence, the infant was usually destroyed or left to die by 
exposure. As late as Paracelsus, hermaphroditic children were thought 

Pagan Beauty 


“monstrous signs of secret sins in the parents.” 23 The annalist Diodorus 
Siculus, in the Roman era, records a case where an Arabian girl’s tumor 
burst open to reveal male genitals. She then changed her name, donned 
men’s clothes, and joined the calvary. 24 

The source of the Hermaphrodite legend is unknown. It may be a 
vestige of the sexual duality of early fertility deities of Asia Minor. Later 
stories improvised upon the name to claim he/she was the child of 
Hermes and Aphrodite. Ovid started a mythographic muddle with his 
version in the Metamorphoses , possibly based on a lost Alexandrian 
romance. The amorous nymph Salmacis traps the beautiful boy Her- 
maphroditus in her forest pool, entwining him with her arms and legs, 
until the gods grant her prayer to unite them into one being, like Plato’s 
primeval androgynes. The tale may have begun as a folk legend about a 
cursed pool sapping the virility of men who bathed in it. 

Greek androgyny evolved from chthonian to Apollonian and back: 
vitalistic energy to godlike charisma to loss of manhood. I do not agree 
with the disparagement of the later androgyne by Jane Harrison and 
Marie Delcourt. Effeminate men have suffered a bad press the world 
over. I accept decadence as a complex historical mode. In late phases, 
maleness is always in retreat. Women have ironically enjoyed a greater 
symbolic, if not practical freedom. Thus it is that male and not female 
homosexuality has usually been harshly punished by law. A debater in 
Lucian declares, “Far better that a woman, in the madness of her lust, 
should usurp the nature of man, than that man’s noble nature should be 
so degraded as to play the woman.” 25 Similarly today, lesbian interludes 
are a staple of heterosexual pornography. Ever since man emerged from 
the dominance of nature, masculinity has been the most fragile and 
problematic of psychic states. 

Greek culture has come to us mainly through Rome. 
Greek Apollonianism appealed to the highly ritualistic Romans, with 
their solemn formalism of religion, law, and politics. Rome returned 
Apollonianism to its Egyptian roots. Like Egypt, Rome was centered on 
a cult of the state; hierarchy and history were the means of national 
identity. The Apollonian is always reactionary. For its own propaganda, 
Rome made Greek style monolithic. Gracious human scale yielded to 
officialism, governmental overstatement. Kouros became colossus. Col¬ 
umns swelled and towered. Rome imitated not the plain, vigorous Doric 
pillar of the Parthenon nor the sleek, elegant Ionic pillar of the Erech- 
theum and Propylaea but the gigantic, frilly Corinthian pillar of the 
temple of Zeus on the plain below the Acropolis. Our cold white Federal 


Pagan Beauty 

architecture is Roman. Banks and government buildings are vast tem¬ 
ples of state, tombs and fortresses. No Greek temple looks like a tomb. 
Rome rediscovered the hieratic Egyptian funeralism latent in Greek 
Apollonian style. The Greeks were not interested in the dead. But Egypt 
and Rome defined themselves by death-rituals of preparation or com¬ 
memoration. Roman ancestors were eternal male presences. Their por¬ 
traits, the imagines , first wax death masks and then stone busts, were 
kept in a household shrine and paraded at funerals. Roman identity was 
condensed into discrete units of personality carried down the linear 
track of dynasty and history. Clan, tribalism, still so strong in Italian 
culture, framed ethics and society. Sculptural western personae began 
in Egypt but were given their definitive stamp by Apollonian Rome. 
Rome made the roster of western selves, names engraved in stone. 

Rome inherited Greek style in the Hellenicization of the Mediterra¬ 
nean world in the centuries before Christ. But the Roman mind was 
neither speculative nor idealist. A Greek temple is solid, rare marble. A 
Roman temple is usually brick faced with marble. Economy and prac¬ 
ticality outweigh abstract aesthetics. The pedimental Parthenon sculp¬ 
tures are finely carved front and back, even though tiny crimps of 
drapery would be hidden from the ground. But the back of a Roman 
statue in a niche could be left relatively rough. Egyptian and Greek 
Apollonianism was a metaphysic of the eye, an aristocratic aestheticism 
making spiritual order of the visible and concrete. The Romans, except 
for Hellenophiles like Hadrian, were not aesthetes. Rome took the 
eroticism and dreamy obliqueness out of Greek iconic sculpture. The 
great Prima Porta statue of Augustus, for example, is kouros turned 
suave, sober diplomat. Law and custom became sacred ends in them¬ 
selves. The Roman persona was a public construction: it had severity, 
weight, density. The Greeks were peripatetic, walking and talking. 
Argument was mobile and improvisatory. But the Romans were de¬ 
clamatory, oratorical. They took stage and held it. The Roman persona 
was the stable prow of an ancient ship of state. Indeed, a “rostrum” is a 
ship’s prow, the trophy-hung speaker’s platform of the Forum. 

Roman personality was equivalent to Greek epic, a repository of 
racial history. The group was paramount. The hero legends of early 
Rome, Marcus Curtius, Mucius Scaevola, Horatius Codes, Lucius 
Brutus, teach self sacrificed to state. The Roman legion, much larger 
than the Greek phalanx, was an extrapolation of Rome’s political will: 
fortitude, resolution, victory. Rome began in combat against its Italic 
neighbors and finally reduced the known world to servitude. Its growth 
was a martial clash of identities, celebrated in the lavish triumph, 

Pagan Beauty 


another procession miming the linearity of history. Roman art was 
documentary, while Greek art treated contemporary history as allegory. 
Gisela Richter remarks: “We have not a single representation of the 
battles of Thermopylai or Salamis, of the Peloponnesian war, of the 
great plague, of the Sicilian expedition. . . . How different the Romans 
or the Egyptians and Assyrians with their endless friezes recording their 
triumphs over their enemies.” 26 Roman art used facts to magnify real¬ 
ity; Greek art transformed reality by avoiding facts. Roman architecture 
was equally pragmatic, excelling in brilliant engineering, colossal pub¬ 
lic works like baths, aqueducts, and a far-flung network of paved roads, 
so sturdy they are still in use. Greek Apollonianism was a sublime 
projection, mind made radiant matter. But Roman Apollonianism was a 
power play, a proclamation of national grandeur. The hard Roman 
persona ultimately descended from pharaonic self-conceptualization, 
the Old Kingdom’s foursquare enthronements. State and self were 
monuments carved by Apollonian borderline. 

What of Apollo’s rival? Roman Bacchus is not Dionysus’ peer. He is 
merely a rowdy wine god, a tippler and mirthmaker. Dionysus was so 
strong in Greece because of the dominance of Apollonian conceptual¬ 
ism. The combat between Apollo and Dionysus, never resolved, pro¬ 
duced the rich diversity of Greek culture. Dionysus was unnecessary in 
Rome because of the ancient chthonianism of Italian religion. Buying 
Greek prestige wholesale, the Romans identified their gods willy-nilly 
with the Olympians, an imperfect match-up in the case of rough Diana. 
The manes , the deified dead, occupied a sepulchral chthonian realm. 
Ancestor-worship is also ancestor-fear. Roman memoriousness was 
part celebration, part propitiation. At the Parentalia in February, the 
family dead were honored for a week. At the Lemuria in May, wander¬ 
ing ghosts were driven out of the family house. The dead pressed upon 
the dutiful consciousness of the living. 

To this day, relatives in my mother’s village near Rome visit the 
cemetery every Sunday to lay flowers on the graves. It is a kind of picnic. 
I remember childhood feelings of chill and awe at the candle kept 
burning by my grandmother before a photograph of her dead daughter 
Lenora, the small, round yellow flame flickering in the darkened room. 
A sense of the mystic and uncanny has pervaded Italian culture for 
thousands of years, a pagan hieraticism flowering again in Catholicism, 
with its polychrome statues of martyred saints, its holy elbows and 
jawbones sealed in altarstones, and its mummified corpses on illumi¬ 
nated display. In a chapel in Naples, I recently counted 11 2 gold and 
glass caskets of musty saints’ bones stacked as a transparent wall from 


Fagan Beauty 

floor to ceiling. In another church, I found a painting of the public 
disembowelling of a patient saint, his intestines being methodically 
wound up on a large machine like a pasta roller. Nailed like schools of 
fish to church walls are hundreds of tiny silver ears, noses, hearts, 
breasts, legs, feet, and other body parts, votive offerings by parishioners 
seeking a cure. Old-style Italian Catholicism, now shunned by middle- 
class WASP-aspiring descendants of immigrants, was full of the chtho- 
nian poetry of paganism. The Italian imagination is darkly archaic. It 
hears the voices of the dead and identifies the passions and torments of 
the body with the slumbering spirits of mother earth. A ritual fragment 
survives from a southern Italian mystery-cult: “I have entered into the 
lap of the queen of the underworld.” I believe I understand this with 
every atavistic fiber of my being—its pagan conflation of longing, lust, 
fright, ecstasy, resignation, and repose. It is the daemonic sublime. 

If there is an Apollonian-Dionysian dialectic in Rome, it is in the 
tension between individual and group. This is the theme of the first four 
books of Vergil’s AeneicL, symbolized by red and gold. Carnal red is 
emotion, sex, life in the body here and now. Imperial gold is the Roman 
future, harsh and glorious. Dutiful Aeneas must harden and limit him¬ 
self. He carries ancestors and posterity on his back. Apollonian gold 
wins over Dionysian red, flaming up in Dido’s funeral pyre. In Homer 
as in Vergil, woman is an obstacle to the heroic quest. The epic journey 
must free itself from female chains and delays. The Trojan women bum 
the ships, and Dido makes Aeneas her consort. 

Half of Aeneas’ destiny, says the opening of the poem, is to find the 
true wife Lavinia, his passage into Italian bloodlines. But Lavinia, no 
Penelope, shrinks as the poem goes on. Vergil oddly gives his imagina¬ 
tive sympathies to Amazon enemies of Rome. Carthage, founded by a 
Phoenician queen, is a transplant of Near East autocracy and goddess 
cult. Woman is in mythic ascendancy. Venus, appearing as Diana to her 
son Aeneas, says her huntress’s quiver and high red boots are the 
Carthaginian female style. Aeneas inspects murals of the Trojan War in 
the rising temple of savage Juno. When he comes to “Penthesilea 
furens,” Dido enters the poem. She is the Amazon of the first half of the 
Aeneid, just as Camilla is the Amazon of the second. Aeneas falls under 
her sway, and the male will is stymied. He builds her city instead of his 

Venus armed is Aeneas’ lesson. Carthage is both the pleasure princi¬ 
ple and the Orient from which he uproots himself. East yields to west, 
Asia to Europe. The Italian tribes think Aeneas effeminate. Tumus 
calls him a “half-man”: “Let me foul in the dust that hair crimped with 

Pagan Beauty 


curling-tongs and oiled with myrrh!” Dido’s suitor Iarbas calls him “this 
second Paris, wearing a Phrygian bonnet to tie up his chin and cover his 
oily hair, and attended by a train of she-men.” 27 Aeneas must purify his 
masculinity, creating the simplicity and gravity of Roman personality. 
The Volscian warrior Camilla, apparently Vergil’s invention, is a new 
burst of female furor that must be quelled for Rome to be bom. The 
Aeneid is remarkably attracted to the glamourous androgynes, Dido 
and Camilla, who steal the thunder of pallid Lavinia. The poem follows 
its hero through a war of sexual personae. Female deviance, losing to 
decorous femininity, takes the poetry with it. The twin viragos win in 

Vergil writes at the borderline between republic and empire. In under 
a century, Rome accelerated in size and ambition. The new cosmopoli¬ 
tan sexual personae broke with tradition. There was a shift from Apollo¬ 
nian unity and narrowness to Dionysian pluralism, uncontrolled and 
eventually decadent. Granting universal citizenship, Rome brought civ¬ 
ilization to the world but diluted itself. Eight hundred years intervene 
between Homer and Vergil. When Vergil picks up the epic genre, it no 
longer obeys poetic command. Epic plot, the male trajectory of history, 
is the weakest thing in the Aeneid. Homer’s great rhetorical rhythms are 
missing. The Iliad and Odyssey were all-day performance art, recited to 
live audiences by a professional bard of athletic stamina. The Aeneid is 
closet drama. Vergil was melancholic, reclusive, possibly homosexual. 
His nickname Parthenias, “the maidenly man,” is a pun on Vergil/t tirgo 
and Parthenope, a poetic name for Naples, near which his villa was 

Vergil, unlike Homer, knew urban coteries of aristocratic refinement, 
a court milieu of febrile worldliness. This experience affects the Aeneid 
in unsuspected ways. Its sexual personae have undergone the same 
transformation as its epic gifts. Homer’s heroes exchange iron caul¬ 
drons and tripods, functional ware of high Bronze Age value. Vergil’s 
gifts are objets d’art, gold and silver and studded with jewels. Alex¬ 
andrian museum consciousness has come into being. Vergil’s detach¬ 
ment and connoisseurship, so damaging to epic’s male pyrotechnics, 
intensify the erotic aura around persons and things. There is an intri¬ 
cate psychological meshing between poet and poem not present in 
Homer. Vergil is “involved” with Dido. Her obsession, suffering, and 
passion of love-hate are the grandest things in literature since Eu¬ 
ripides’ Medea. Vergil’s identification with her is as palpable as Flau¬ 
bert’s with Madame Bovaiy or Tolstoy’s with Anna Karenina. The sui¬ 
cide of a male-willed heroine, in all three cases, may be a rite of 


Pagan Beauty 

exorcism, objectifying and terminating a male artist’s spiritual transsex¬ 
ualism. Falling on Aeneas’ sword, Dido cries, “Sic, sic iuvat ire sub 
umbras” (“Thus, thus is it pleasing to go beneath the shades”). The 
liquid Latin is thrillingly, hypnotically autoerotic, like honey and dark 
wine. The shadowy tongue tapping in our mouth is as private and 
phallic as the fetishistic sword. 

Little else in the Aeneid approaches the brilliance of the Carthaginian 
books. The poet probably knew it, as he ordered the unfinished poem 
burnt after his death—like self-immolating Dido. Vergil is a decadent 
poet, a virtuoso of destruction. His fall of Troy is a cinematic apoc¬ 
alypse, flames filling the night sky as violation and profanation swirl 
below. His characteristic imagery is sinuous, writhing, glistering, phos¬ 
phorescent. The only translation that captures the Aeneid's uncanny 
daemonism is by W. F. Jackson Knight, in prose. In this poem, Roman 
ritualism falls to forces of the irrational, so long kept in check. Vergil, an 
admirer of Augustus, shows the costs of political destiny—most re¬ 
cently, the suicide of another Oriental queen, Cleopatra, Dido’s model. 
Epic plot in the Aeneid is failed self-containment, a made scheme to 
bridle transsexual reverie. Vergil’s relation to his own poem is perverse. 
At a historical crisis in sexual personae, he turns to epic to stop it and 
stop himself. Spenser reproduces this conservative but deeply conflicted 
strategy in The Faerie Queene. Sexual personae are vampires on plot in 
the Aeneid) a phenomenon I find in Coleridge’s Christabel and call 

The Roman republic made the persona, Greek theater’s 
wooden mask, a legal entity, sharp-contoured in the Apollonian way. 
The Roman decadence, ingenious in pleasures and cruelties, was a 
reaction against and satiric commentary on the austerity of republican 
personae, a profanation of ancestor cult. Republic to empire was like 
high classic to Hellenistic, unity to multiplicity. Roman religion’s chtho- 
nian reverence turned into Dionysian orgy, now removed from fertile 
nature. Maenadism was un-Roman. There was no Asiatic wildness in 
Roman cult, with its priestly hierarchy, as in Egypt but not Greece. 
There was program, formula, decorum, even in the honoring of omen- 
filled nature. The Roman priest was an interpreter who kept his wits 
about him. He did not go into trance like the Delphic oracle. 

True Greek orgy meant mystic loss of self. But in imperial Roman 
orgy, persona continued. The Roman decadent kept the observing 
Apollonian eye awake during Dionysian revel. More Alexandrian con- 
noisseurship, here applied to the fashionable self. Eye plus orgy equals 

Pagan Beauty 

decadence. Salaciousness, lewdness, lasciviousness: such interesting 
hyperstates are produced by a superimposition of mind on erotic action. 
The west has pioneered in this charred crimson territory. Without 
strong personality of the western kind, serious decadence is impossible. 
Sin is a form of cinema, seen from a distance. The Romans, pragmat¬ 
ically adapting Greek ideas, made engineering out of eroticism too. The 
heir of Greek theater was not Roman theater but Roman sex. The 
Roman decadence has never been matched in scale because other 
places and times have lacked the great mass of classical forms to cor¬ 
rupt. Rome made daemonic music of gluttony and lust from the Diony¬ 
sian body. The Maenadism absent from Roman cult became imperial 
ecstasy, mechanized greed. 

Roman literature’s sexual personae are in hectic perpetual motion. 
Greek aristocratic athleticism split in two in Rome: vulgar gladiatorship 
by ruffians and slaves, and leisure-class sexual adventurism, a sporting 
life then as now. As the republic ends, Catullus records the jazzy pro¬ 
miscuity of Rome’s chic set. Patrician women loitering on dark streets, 
giving themselves to common passers-by. Half-clad men molested by 
their mothers and sisters. Effeminates soft as a rabbit and “languid as a 
limp penis.” A sodomite waking with battered buttocks and “red lips 
like snow,” mouth rimmed with last night’s pasty spoils. The strolling 
poet, finding a boy and girl copulating, falls upon the boy from behind, 
piercing and driving him to his task. Public sex, it is fair to say, is 
decadent. Oh, those happy pagan days, romping in green meadows: one 
still encounters this sentimental notion, half-baked Keats. It is quite 
wrong. Catullus, like Baudelaire, savors imagery of squalor and filth. 
His moral assumptions remain those of republican Rome, which he 
jovially pollutes with degeneration and disease. His poetry is a torch-lit 
descent into a gloomy underworld, where we survey the contamination 
and collapse of Roman personae. Men and women are suddenly free, 
but freedom is a flood of superfluous energy, a vicious circle of agitation, 
quest, satiation, exhaustion, ennui. Moral codes are always obstructive, 
relative, and man-made. Yet they have been of enormous profit to 
civilization. They are civilization. Without them, we are invaded by the 
chaotic barbarism of sex, nature’s tyranny, turning day into night and 
love into obsession and lust. 

Catullus, an admirer of Sappho, turns her emotional ambivalence 
into sadomasochism. Her chills and fever become his “odi et amo,” “I 
hate and I love.” Her beloved maidens, fresh as orange flowers, become 
his cynical Lesbia, adulteress and dominatrix, vampiristically “draining 
the strength of all.” The urban femme fatale dons the primitive mask of 


Pagan Beauty 

mother nature. Lesbia, the wellborn Clodia, introduces to Rome a 
depraved sexual persona that had been current, according to aggrieved 
comment of the Old Testament, for a thousand years in Babylon. Fe¬ 
male receptivity becomes a sinkhole of vice, the vagina a collector of 
pestilence to poison Roman nobility and bring it to an end. 

Catullus is a cartographer of sexual personae. His lament for the 
dying god Attis (Carmen 63) is an extraordinary improvisation on gen¬ 
der. Castrating himself for Cybele, Attis enters a sexual twilight zone. 
Grammatically, the poem refers to him as feminine. “I a woman, I a 
man, I a youth, I a boy”: in this litany of haunting memory, Attis floats 
through a shamanistically expanded present tense of gender, all things 
and nothing. Like imperial Rome, he has been pitched into an ecstatic 
free fall of personae. Suspension of sexual conventions brings melan¬ 
choly, not joy. He is artistically detached from ordinary life but feels 
“sterile.” Attis is the poet himself, mutating through gender in a 
strange, new, manic world. 

Ovid, bom forty years later, is the first psychoanalyst of sex. His 
masterpiece is aptly called Metamorphoses: as Rome changes, Ovid 
plunders Greek and Roman legend for magic transformations—man 
and god to animal and plant, male to female and back. Identity is liquid. 
Nature is under Dionysian spell; Apollo’s contours do not hold. The 
world becomes a projected psyche, played upon by amoral vagaries of 
sexual desire. Ovid’s encyclopedic attentiveness to erotic perversity will 
not recur until Spenser’s Faerie Queene , directly influenced by him. His 
successors are Sade, Balzac, Proust, Krafft-Ebing, and Freud. 

The Metamorphoses is a handbook of sexual problematics. There is 
Iphis, a girl raised as a boy who falls in love with another girl and is 
relieved of her suffering by being changed into a man. Or Caeneus, 
once the girl Caenis, who rejects marriage and is raped by Neptune. As 
compensation, she is changed into a man invulnerable to wounds, 
martial and sexual. According to the Homeric scholiast, Caeneus set up 
his spear as a phallic totem in the marketplace, prayed and sacrificed to 
it, and commanded people hail it as a god, angering Zeus. In Vergil’s 
underworld, Aeneas sees Caeneus as a woman, the morphological 
ghost of her femaleness reasserting itself. Ovid’s complications of viola¬ 
tion and fetishism are theory, not titillation. The theme is our “double 
nature,” his term for the centaurs who smother impenetrable Caeneus 
after a horrifying orgy of Maenadic pulverizations. Like Freud, Ovid 
constructs hypothetical models of narcissism and the will-to-power. His 
point of view comes from his position between eras. Sexual personae, in 

Pagan Beauty 


flux, allow him to bring cool Apollonian study to bear upon roiling 
Dionysian process. 

In his lesser works, Ovid lightens Catullus’ bitter sex war into parlor 
politics. In The Art of Love, he says the seducer must be shrewd and 
changeable as Proteus. This is the Roman Dionysus, metamorphic 
Greek nature reduced to erotic opportunism. Sex-change is a foxy 
game: the wise adulteress, counsels Ovid, transsexualizes her letters, 
turning “he” to “she.” The empire diverted Roman conceptual energy 
into sex. So specialized is Martial’s sexual vocabulary that it influenced 
modem medical terminology. Latin, an exact but narrow language, 
became startlingly precise about sexual activity. The Latinist Fred 
Nichols tells me that a verb in Martial, used in poetry for the first time 
by Catullus, describes the fluttering movement of the buttocks of the 
passive partner in sodomy. There were, in fact, two forms of this verb: 
one for males and another for females. 

Classical Athens, exalting masculine athleticism, had no conspic¬ 
uous sexual sadomasochists and street transvestites. The Roman em¬ 
pire, on the other hand, if we believe the satirists, was overrun by 
epicene creatures. Ovid warns women to beware of elegant men with 
coiffures “sleek with liquid nard”—they may be out to steal your dress! 
“What can a woman do when her lover is smoother than she, and may 
have more boyfriends ?” 28 Ausonius tells a sodomist with depilated anus 
and buttocks, “You are a woman behind, a man in front.” Girlish boys 
and long-haired male prostitutes appear in Horace, Petronius, and 
Martial. Gaius Julius Phaedrus blames homosexuals of both sexes on 
drunken Prometheus, who attached the wrong genitalia to human 
figures he was molding. Lesbianism, infrequent in Greek literature, 
makes a splash in Rome. Martial and Horace record real-life tribads, 
Baiba, Philaenis, and Folia of Arminum, with her “masculine libidi¬ 
nousness.” There are lesbian innuendos about the all-woman rites of 
the Bona Dea, crashed by Publius Clodius in drag. Lucian’s debater 
condemns lesbian acts as “androgynous passions” and calls dildos “in¬ 
famous instruments of lust, an unholy imitation of a fruitless union .” 29 
Rome’s sexual disorientation was great theater, but it led to the collapse 
of paganism. 

Pursuit of pleasure belongs on the party circuit, not in the centers of 
power. Today too, one might like playfulness and spontaneity in a 
friend, lover, or star, but one wants a different character in people with 
professional or political authority. The more regular, unimaginative, 
and boring the daily lives of presidents, surgeons, and airline pilots, the 

Pagan Beauty 


better for us, thank you very much. Hierarchic ministry should be 
ascetic and focused. It does not profit from identity crises, the province 
of art. Rome had a genius for organization. Its administrative structure 
was absorbed by the Catholic Church, which turned an esoteric Pales¬ 
tinian sect into a world religion. Roman imperial bureaucracy, an ex* 
tension of republican legalism, was a superb machine, rolling over 
other nations with brutal force. Two thousand years later, we are still 
feeling the consequences of its destruction of Judaea and dispersion of 
the fractious Jews, who refused to become Roman. We know from 
Hollywood movies what that machine sounded like, its thunderous, 
relentless marching drums pushing Roman destiny across the world 
and through history. But when the masters of the machine turned to 
idleness and frivolity, Roman moral force vanished. 

The Roman annalists give us the riveting gossip. Sodomy was re¬ 
ported of the emperors Tiberius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Commodus, Tra¬ 
jan, and Elagabalus. Even Julius Caesar was rumored to be bisexual. 
Hadrian fell in love with the beautiful Antinous, deified him after his 
death, and spread his image everywhere. Caligula had a taste for extrav¬ 
agant robes and women’s clothes. He dressed his wife Caesonia in 
armour and paraded her before the troops. He loved impersonations, 
appearing in wig and costume as singer, dancer, charioteer, gladiator, 
virgin huntress, wife. He posed as all the male and female gods. As 
Jupiter, he seduced many women, including his sisters. Cassius Dio 
tartly remarks, “He was eager to appear to be anything rather than a 
human being and an emperor .” 30 

Nero chose the roles of bard, athlete, and charioteer. He dressed as a 
tragedian to watch Rome bum. Onstage he played heroes and heroines, 
gods and goddesses. He pretended to be a runaway slave, a blind man, a 
madman, a pregnant woman, a woman in labor. He wore the mask of 
his wife Poppaea Sabina, who had died, it was said, after he kicked her 
in her pregnant belly. Nero was a clever architect of sexual spectacle. He 
built riverbank brothels and installed patrician women to solicit him 
from doorways. Tying young male and female victims to stakes, he 
draped himself in animal skins and leapt out from a den to attack their 
genitals. Nero devised two homosexual parodies of marriage. He cas¬ 
trated the boy Sporus, who resembled dead Poppaea, dressed him in 
women’s clothes, and married him before the court, treating him after¬ 
ward as wife and empress. In the second male marriage, with a youth 
whom Tacitus calls Pythagoras and Suetonius Doryphorus, sex roles 
were reversed: the emperor was bride. “On the wedding night,” reports 

Pagan Beauty 


Suetonius, “he imitated the screams and moans of a girl being de¬ 
flowered .” 31 

Commodus gave his mother’s name to a concubine, making his sex 
life an Oedipal drama. He appeared as Mercury and transvestite Her¬ 
cules. He was called Amazonius, because he dressed his concubine 
Marcia as an Amazon and wanted to appear as an Amazon himself in 
the arena. Elagabalus, Caracalla’s cousin, brought the sexually freakish 
customs of Asia Minor to imperial Rome. He scandalized the army with 
his silks, jewelry, and dancing. His short reign was giddy with plays, 
pageants, and parlor games. Lampridius says, “He got himself up as a 
confectioner, a perfumer, a cook, a shopkeeper, or a procurer, and he 
even practiced all these occupations in his own house continually .” 32 
Elagabalus’ lordly ease of access to plebeian roles was social mobility in 
reverse. Like Nero, he practiced “class transvestism,” David Reisman’s 
phrase for the modem bluejeans fad . 33 

Elagabalus’ life passion was his longing for womanhood. Wearing a 
wig, he prostituted himself in real Roman brothels. Cassius Dio reports: 

He set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecen¬ 
cies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as the harlots 
do, and shaking the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a 
soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by. There were, 
of course, men who had been specially instructed to play their 
part. . . . He would collect money from his patrons and give himself 
airs over his gains; he would also dispute with his associates in this 
shameful occupation, claiming that he had more lovers than they 
and took in more money. 

Miming an adulteress caught in the act and beaten by her husband, the 
emperor cherished black eyes as a souvenir. He summoned to court a 
man notorious for enormous genitals and greeted him with “a ravishing 
feminine pose,” saying, “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” He 
impersonated the Great Mother in a lion-drawn chariot and publicly 
posed as the Venus Pudica , dropping to his knees with buttocks thrust 
before a male partner. Finally, Elagabalus’ transvestite fantasies led to a 
desire to change sex. He had to be dissuaded from castrating himself, 
reluctantly accepting circumcision as a compromise. Dio says, “He 
asked the physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means 
of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so .” 34 Science, 
which only recently perfected this operation, is clearly laggard upon the 
sexual imagination. 


Pagan Beauty 

Absolute power is a door into dreaming. The Roman emperors made 
living theater of their turbulent world. There was no gap between wish 
and realization; fantasy leapt into instant visibility. Roman imperial 
masque: charades, inquisition, horseplay. The emperors made sexual 
personae an artistic medium, plastic as clay. Nero, setting live Chris¬ 
tians afire for a night banquet, played with reality. Roman copies of 
Greek statues are a bit dull and coarse. So too with Rome’s sexual 
literalization of Greek drama. The emperors, acting to provoke, torture, 
or arouse, removed the poetry and philosophy from theater. The vomi- 
toria of Roman villas are troughs for vomiting the last six courses before 
starting on the next. Vomitoria is also the name for the exits of Roman 
amphitheaters, through which the mob poured. Imperial Rome, heir to 
sprawling Hellenistic culture, suffered from too-muchness, the hall¬ 
mark of decadence. Too much mind, too much body; too many people, 
too many facts. The mind of the king is a perverse mirror of the time. 
Having no cinema, Nero made his own. In Athens, the beautiful boy 
was an idealized objet de culte . In Rome, persons were stage machinery, 
mannequins, decor. The lives of the wastrel emperors demonstrate the 
inadequacy of our modem myth of personal freedom. Here were men 
who were free and who were sickened by that freedom. Sexual libera¬ 
tion, our deceitful mirage, ends in lassitude and inertness. An emper¬ 
or’s day was androgyny-in-action. But was he happier than his republi¬ 
can ancestors, with their rigid sex roles? Repression makes meaning 
and purpose. 

The more moral an emperor, the less he was drawn to theater. Dio 
says of Trajan’s empress: “When Plotina, his wife, first entered the 
palace, she turned round so as to face the stairway and the populace and 
said: ‘I enter here such a person as I wish to be when I depart.’ And she 
conducted herself during the entire reign in such manner as to incur no 
censure .” 35 With old Roman integrity, Plotina rejects random meta¬ 
morphosis of personality. The moral man has one persona, firmly fixed 
in the great chain of being. Plato dismisses myths about the gods 
changing shape: “Is not the best always least liable to change or alter¬ 
ation by an external cause? . . . Every god is as perfect and as good as 
possible, and remains in his own form without variation for ever .” 36 
Virtue and divinity are unitary, homogeneous, Apollonian. Thus the 
empress Plotina resists the self-division of worldly experience. Multi¬ 
plicity of persona is anarchic. Hermes is a thief. Hence the neoclassic 
eighteenth century, unlike the Renaissance, rejects the androgyne: 
Pope assails epicene Lord Hervey, whom he casts as Nero’s catamite 
Sporus, for defying the great chain of being. Sporus refuses to confine 

Pagan Beauty 


himself to one social or sexual role, transgressing the borders of male 
and female, mammal and reptile, even animal and mineral. 37 For Pope, 
a man knows his own place and his own face. There are no masks. 

Theatrical self-transformation, a seductive principle of our time, can 
never be reconciled with morality. From antiquity on, professional the¬ 
ater has been under a moral cloud. Autocrat, artist, actor: freedom of 
persona is magical but destabilizing. An emperor’s appearance onstage 
was shocking, since actors were declasse, barred from Roman citizen¬ 
ship. St. Augustine denounces “the voluptuous madness of stage-plays” 
and “the foul plague-spot” of the theater. 38 Tertullian complains of 
theater’s immorality and its frequenting by prostitutes, who even took to 
the stage to advertise themselves. The first English actresses, in the late 
seventeenth century, were notorious for promiscuity. In 1969, the New 
York Social Register still dropped the name of a man who married a 
movie star. The Puritans, who managed to close the theaters for eigh¬ 
teen years, equated fiction with deceit. They were right. Art remains an 
avenue of escape from morality. Actors live in illusion; they are skittish 
shamans, drenched in being. Crafty fabricators of mood and gesture, 
they slip along the edges of convention. Actor and artist are the first to 
register historical change. They write the sibylline leaves of western 
sexual personae. 

Roman decadence was the final skirmish between the Apollonian 
and Dionysian elements in pagan culture. The strength and vigor of the 
Roman republic came from its synthesis of an Apollonian cult of the 
state with archaic chthonian ritualism. Major early Roman gods were 
male, with subordinate fertility goddesses. Although worship of the 
Great Mother had been introduced in 204 b.c. and had always been an 
option of the aristocracy, her popularity during the empire was a signifi¬ 
cant departure from Rome’s first principles. She came from the eastern 
Mediterranean, where nature is less hospitable and more absolute. Was 
this turn toward female divinity a cultural advance or retreat? Then and 
now, worship of the Great Mother in an urban era is decadent. Imperial 
Romans no longer lived in and by the cycle of nature. The Great Mother 
went from fertile life force to sadomasochistic sexual persona. She was 
the ultimate dominatrix. In late Rome, men were passive to history. 
Decadence is the juxtaposition of primitivism with sophistication, a 
circling back of history on itself. The Roman Great Mother, with her 
multiple names and symbols, was heavy with the past. Her pregnancy 
was curatorial, another Alexandrian museum. 

The Great Mother was the focus of new anxieties and spiritual long¬ 
ings that would not be satisfied until the consolidation of Christianity. 


Pagan Beauty 

The Church Fathers recognized the Great Mother as the enemy of 
Christ. St. Augustine, writing at a turning point in western culture (ca. 
415 a.d.), calls the rites of Cybele “obscene,” “shameful,” “filthy,” “the 
mad and abominable revelry of effeminates and mutilated men”: “If 
these are sacred rites, what is sacrilege? If this is purification, what is 
pollution? . . . The Great Mother has surpassed all her sons, not in 
greatness of deity, but of crime.” Cybele is a “monster,” imposing a 
“deformity of cruelty” on her castrated priests. Even Jupiter sinned less: 
“He, with all his seductions of women, only disgraced heaven with one 
Ganymede; she, with so many avowed and public effeminates, has both 
defiled the earth and outraged heaven.” 39 The Great Mother, like Rome 
herself, is the Whore of Babylon. 

Christianity could not tolerate the pagan integration of sex, cruelty, 
and divinity. It thrust chthonian nature into the nether realm, to be in¬ 
fested by medieval witches. Daemonism became demonism, a conspir¬ 
acy against God. Love, tenderness, pity became the new virtues, soft 
qualities of the Palestinian martyr. The pagan veneration of force had 
turned politics into a bloodbath. Late Rome oscillated between fatigue 
and brutality. Flagellation and castration in the mother-cults was a sac¬ 
rificial symbol of human dependency on nature. In the empire, how¬ 
ever, whipping got kinky, and castrates went professional. Packs of 
them, in wigs, makeup, and garish female dress, roamed the towns and 
highways clinking cymbals and begging for alms. Apuleius describes 
them “squeaking for delight in their splintering harsh womanish 
voices.” 40 Eunuchs had a high profile in the empire. Church leaders 
despised them. Christian strictness about sex roles dates from this 
period of crass, flamboyant personae. The Great Mother’s castrate de¬ 
votees, turning ritual orgy into street carnival, put the effeminate or 
homosexual male into permanent ill repute. When woman resurfaces 
in the Christian pantheon, she will be the mild Virgin without animal 
taint. Banished by Augustine, the Great Mother disappears for over a 
thousand years. But she returns in all her glory in Romanticism, that 
historical wave of the archetypal. 

Though it destroyed the outward forms of paganism, Christianity has 
never interrupted the pagan continuity of sexual personae, latent in our 
language, ideas, and images. Christianity inherited Judaism’s suspicion 
of image-making, but in its centuries of expansion, it began to use pic¬ 
tures as a didactic tool. The earliest Christians were an illiterate under¬ 
class. Christian pictures were first rudimentary scrawls, a new cave art 
in Roman catacombs; then they sailed upward into Byzantine domes, 
where they copied Greek iconic posture and hard-edged Apollonian 

Pagan Beauty 


style. Christian saints are reborn pagan personae. Martin Luther cor¬ 
rectly diagnosed a loss of aboriginal Christianity in the Italian Church. 
The Romanism in Catholicism is splendidly, enduringly pagan, spilling 
out in Renaissance, Counter-Reformation, and beyond. 

Paganism is pictorialism plus the will-to-power. It is ritualism, gran¬ 
diosity, colossalism, sensationalism. All theater is pagan showiness, the 
brazen pomp of sexual personae. Judaism’s campaign to make divinity 
invisible has never fully succeeded. Images are always eluding moral 
control, creating the brilliant western art tradition. Idolatry is fascism of 
the eye. The western eye will be served, with or without the consent of 
conscience. Images are archaic projection, earlier than words and mor¬ 
als. Greco-Roman personality is itself a visual image, shapely and con¬ 
crete. The sexual and psychological deficiencies of Judeo-Christianity 
have become blatant in our own time. Popular culture is the new 
Babylon, into which so much art and intellect now flow. It is our impe¬ 
rial sex theater, supreme temple of the western eye. We live in the age of 
idols. The pagan past, never dead, flames again in our mystic hier¬ 
archies of stardom. 

Renaissance Form 

Italian Art 

The Renaissance, a rebirth of pagan image and form, was 
an explosion of sexual personae. Recent scholarship has followed a 
Christianizing tendency, smoothing the rough edges off the Renais¬ 
sance and giving it an anachronistic moral tone. Specialists have slowly 
redefined Renaissance humanism in their own image, patient and pru¬ 
dent. Yet the disciples of saintly Raphael could plot the murder of a rival 
artist in the street. The sudden intellectual and geographical expansion 
of culture inaugurated three centuries of psychological turbulence. 
Renaissance style was spectacle and display, a pagan ostentation. The 
Renaissance liberated the western eye, repressed by the Christian Mid¬ 
dle Ages. In that eye, sex and aggression are amorally fused. 

The great chain of being, a master principle of western culture from 
classical antiquity to the Enlightenment, sees the universe as hierarchi¬ 
cal: mineral, plant, animal, man, angel, God. The Renaissance was 
politically unstable. Shakespeare’s Ulysses grounds politics in the great 
chain of being: disrespect for authority is like misaligned planets caus¬ 
ing earthquake and storm (Troilus and Cressida I.iii.83— 126). From the 
tension between sexual personae and public order came an abundance 
of Renaissance literature and art. Celebrations of the beauty and neces¬ 
sity of order are a reflex of the nearness of disorder. 

The medieval great chain of being suffered a climactic trauma: the 
Black Death of 1348, a bubonic plague that killed up to 40 percent of 
Europe’s population. Boccaccio decribes the breakdown of law and 
government, the desertion of child by parent and husband by wife. A 
wellborn woman who fell ill was nursed by a male servant: “Nor did she 
have any scruples about showing him every part of her body as freely as 
she would have displayed it to a woman . . . ; and this explains why 


Italian Art 


those women who recovered were possibly less chaste in the period that 
followed.” 1 The Black Death weakened social controls. It had a polar 
effect, pushing some toward debauchery and others, like the flagellants, 
toward religiosity. 

The Athenian plague, I argued, brought high classicism to an end. 
The Black Death worked in reverse, giving birth to the Renaissance by 
destroying the Middle Ages. Philip Ziegler says, “Modem man was 
forged in the crucible of the Black Death.” 2 Christianity’s failure to 
protect the good damaged Church authority and opened the way for the 
Reformation. I think the grossness and squalor of plague broke the 
Christian taboo on display of the body. Pagan nudity reappeared in its 
anguished Hellenistic form of torture, massacre, and decay. By reduc¬ 
ing persons to bodies, the plague put personality into a purely physical 
or secular dimension. I begin Renaissance art with the shock of the 
Black Death. Public ugliness and exhibitionism unmoralized the body 
and prepared it for its reidealization in painting and sculpture. Boccac¬ 
cio’s plague-framed Decameron, the first work of Renaissance litera¬ 
ture, is an epic of cultural disintegration and renewal. 

At the Renaissance, says Jacob Burckhardt, there was an “awakening 
of personality.” 3 Renaissance art teems with personalities, arrogant, 
seductive, vivacious. Italy restores the pagan theatricality of western 
identity. There is a craze for cosmetics, hairstyles, costumes. What 
would have been vanity and sybaritism in the Middle Ages becomes the 
public language of personae. Architecture takes vivid hue. The white 
marble of the Florentine Duomo (completed in the early Renaissance) 
is crossed with red and green, hallucinatory vibrations in the Italian 
sun. This burst of multiple color is like coming to Vergil after Caesar 
and Cicero. The AeneicCs new artistic palette—rose, violet, purple— 
signals the manic proliferation of imperial personae. So too in the 
Renaissance, as in the psychedelic Sixties. Colors and personae are in 
dynamic relation. By the late Renaissance, architecture dissolves in 
color or is buried under ornamentation. Bernini uses twenty colored 
marbles for the Comaro Chapel. In that outbreak of pagan sex and 
violence which is the Bernini Baroque, the liberated eye finally drifts 
into a sea of sensual excitation. 

The Renaissance infatuation with sexual personae is reflected in 
Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (1528), which had enormous influ¬ 
ence all over Europe. It is a program for theatricality. The man with a 
talent, says Castiglione, should “adroitly seek the occasion for display¬ 
ing it.” 4 Social life is a stage and each man a dramatist. Castiglione set 
high standards of taste for dress and deportment. The courtier is an 

I 4 2 

Renaissance Form 

artifact, a work of self-sculpture. He is also an androgyne: he has “a 
special sweetness,” a “grace” and “beauty.” Two of his primary quali¬ 
ties, sprezzatura and disinvoltura (“nonchalance” and “ease”), are her- 
maphroditizing. That is, by making speech and movement seem effort¬ 
less, they disguise or efface masculine action. Woman is central to the 
Book of the Courtier: the dialogue takes place in the apartments of the 
Duchess of Mantua while the Duke sleeps, and woman literally has the 
last word. The Castiglione woman is purely feminine. Castiglione op¬ 
poses the double-sexed Petrarchan model of womanhood, with its 
proud, killing cold. The courtier’s sweetness and grace seep into him 
from contact with women. Male education is Castiglione’s theme as 
much as Plato’s, but woman has now captured the symbolic high 
ground of spiritual value. In Castiglione, all women are Diotimas. 

The courtier quests for a sexual persona perfectly balancing mas¬ 
culine and feminine. Castiglione warns against effeminacy, excessive 
feminization. The courtier’s face should have “something manly about 

I would have our Courtier’s face be such, not so soft and feminine 
as many attempt to have who not only curl their hair and pluck 
their eyebrows, but preen themselves in all those ways that the most 
wanton and dissolute women in the world adopt; and in walking, in 
posture, and in every act, appear so tender and languid that their 
limbs seem to be on the verge of falling apart; and utter their words 
so limply that it seems they are about to expire on the spot; and the 
more they find themselves in the company of men of rank, the more 
they make a show of such manners. These, since nature did not 
make them women as they clearly wish to appear and be, should be 
treated not as good women, but as public harlots, and driven not 
only from the courts of great lords but from the society of all noble 
men. 5 

Is this merely an attack on open homosexuality? Castiglione implies 
that effeminacy is somehow inspired by the presence of authority fig¬ 
ures. The issue is the moral welfare of court and sovereign. 

We come now to history’s most repellent androgyne, completely over¬ 
looked by feminist promoters of androgyny. I call it the “court hermaph¬ 
rodite.” Renaissance high culture was organized around the courts of 
duke and king, upon whom artists and intellectuals depended for pa¬ 
tronage. Art was a tool of competitive display, by which a ruler main¬ 
tained his prestige. Power always generates sycophancy. Enid Welsford 
says, “The blasphemous flattering of princes, which was such a dis- 

Italian Art 


agreeable characteristic of Renaissance literature and revelling, was not 
a mere fashion of speech but a sign that the state was being regarded as 
an end in itself.” 6 A prince, one step from God, reproduced the great 
chain of being in his court hierarchy. Flattery was secular prayer, wor¬ 
ship of the sacred order. But the insincere flatterer was leech and 
opportunist, a polluter of language. In Castiglione’s detestation of the 
type, we see the moral dangers of Renaissance theatricality. 

The court hermaphrodite appears wherever there is wealth, power, 
and fame. He is in governments, corporations, university departments, 
and the book and art world. We know the professional sycophant from 
the Hollywood flack or yes-man. He is the celebrity hairdresser, the 
boudoir confidant and lounge lizard, the glossy escort. Ava Gardner 
said of an unctuous gossip columnist, “He’s either at your feet or at your 
throat.” Flattery and malice come from the same forked tongue. The 
sycophant is an androgyne because of his pliability and servility. He is a 
deformation of Castiglione’s courtier: self-sculpture becomes slavish 
plasticity to the ruler’s whim and will. Identity is self-evacuated. The 
flatterer opens himself like a glove to the royal hand. Castiglione’s male 
“harlots” are, or seem to be, homosexual because sycophancy is politi¬ 
cal sodomy. We call a flatterer a brown-nose, an ass-licker, sucking up, 
grovelling, supine. His shameless self-abasement is unmanly, elevating 
bum over head. Lloyd George said Lord Derby was “a cushion who 
always bore the impress of the last man who sat on him.” Like Milton’s 
“fawning” Satan, the smooth flatterer crawls on his belly, twisting and 
turning with changing circumstance. He is purely reactive, a parody of 
femininity, each word and deed a cloying mime of the ruler’s desire. 
This phenomenon may be a perversion of male bonding, a social spec¬ 
tacle of dominance and submission. 

Shakespeare’s Richard II is rebuked by his lords for the “thousand 
flatterers” who sway his judgment (Il.i.ioo). Flatteiy poisoning the 
court world of Hamlet is one cause of the hero’s chronic nausea. Pol- 
onius and the young courtier Osric agree like annoying echoes with 
each of the exasperated Hamlet’s nonsensical assertions. The court 
hermaphrodite has no gender because he has no real self or moral 
substance. Most painful to Hamlet is the betrayal of his childhood 
friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstem, who turn spy for the king. 
Hamlet calls Rosencrantz a “sponge . . . that soaks up the king’s counte¬ 
nance, his rewards, his authorities” (IV.ii. 12—21). Goethe’s Wilheim 
Meister rejects a proposal to combine the two men into one: there ought 
to be “at least a dozen” of them, for “they are society itself.” 7 Shake¬ 
speare’s dramatic doubling of Rosencrantz and Guildenstem is the 


Renaissance Form 

court hermaphrodite sterilely cloning itself. Inseparable and indistin¬ 
guishable, they hover in floating passivity. Pope’s ambitious dunces dive 
into London sewage: sycophancy was a foul byproduct of Renaissance 
secularism. John Donne alludes to “painted courtiers” and “strange 
Hermaphrodits” (Epithalamion made at Lincolnes Inne). In Ben Jon- 
son’s Volpone , the “parasite” Mosca is cunning household sycophant to 
a nobleman whose entourage includes a eunuch, Castrone, and a her¬ 
maphrodite, Androgyno. Pleased with Mosca’s services, Volpone cries, 
“My witty mischief, / Let me embrace thee. O that I could now / 
Transform thee to a Venus!” (V.i.) Flattery is sexual subordination. 
Hierarchy is conceptualized eroticism, which is why, as homely Henry 
Kissinger said, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. The Renaissance 
court aesthetic is still thriving in the eighteenth century, when Pope 
denounces Lord Hervey as a cynical court hermaphrodite and Mira- 
beau calls Marie Antoinette “the only man at court.” Two cinema court 
hermaphrodites are Katharine Hepburn’s nervy, epicene secretary Ger¬ 
ald in Woman of the Year and the odious eunuch Photinus, Pharaoh’s 
lord chamberlain in the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra . 

Renaissance hierarchies are dramatized in the noisy climax of Ben¬ 
venuto Cellini’s Autobiography (1562). The artist is one of the great 
sexual personae of the Renaissance, a culture hero and worker of 
marvels. Before this, sculptor and painter, as manual laborers, were 
always inferior to the poet. Everywhere except Greece, they were simply 
artisans, like today’s carpenter and plumber. Cellini’s bronze Perseus is 
forged in a Wagnerian storm of western will. The artist attacks by earth, 
air, water, and fire. He piles on wood, brick, iron, copper; he digs a pit; 
he hauls ropes. He shapes his hero out of clay and wax. He exerts 
superhuman energies, until he is struck down by fever. Cellini takes to 
bed in ritual couvade, while Perseus strains to be born. The metal 
curdles and must be resurrected from the dead. Finally, the shouting, 
cursing artist, transfigured by creative ecstasy, defeats all obstacles and 
brings Perseus into the world in an explosion, “a tremendous flash of 
flame” like a thunderbolt. Cellini has made “miracles,” triumphing by 
a godlike blend of male and female power. 8 

Now Perseus is placed in Florence’s public square (fig. 18). At its 
unveiling, the crowd sends up “a shout of boundless enthusiasm.” 
Dozens of sonnets are nailed up, panegyrics by university scholars. The 
Duke sits for hours hidden in a palace window, listening to citizens 
acclaim the statue. This thrilling episode demonstrates the potential for 
collectivity at certain privileged moments in history. The Renaissance 
made public art, uniting the social classes in a common emotion. A 

i8. Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, ca. 1550. 


Renaissance Form 

figure on a platform; the mingling of nobles, intellectuals, plebeians: 
one thinks of the broad audience of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It is 
impossible to imagine a modem art work provoking a shout from a 
socially mixed crowd. Our sole equivalent is cinema, as at the Atlanta 
premiere of Gone with the Wind. Cellini illustrates the national differ¬ 
ences in Renaissance form: in Italy, the objet d’art; in England, drama. 

Whether Cellini lies or exaggerates is irrelevant. His autobiography 
(dictated to a scribe) is compulsively western in its hierarchical vision. 
Little in the East corresponds to this epiphanic theatricality of the art 
object, this concentration of affect upon a single point, the apex of a 
perceptual pyramid. The Perseus is an Apollonian idol of the aggressive 
western eye. It is partly Cellini’s victorious superself and partly a homo¬ 
erotic glamourization of the beautiful boy, a Greco-Roman theme re¬ 
vived in the Renaissance. Western personality is raised on a pedestal, in 
Florence or in Nuremberg. Leni Riefenstahl did for Hitler what the 
neoclassic David did for Napoleon. Personality is ritualized by the 
fascism of the western eye. Cellini, by divine force of genius, raises his 
Perseus to a summit presided over by an invisible godlike Duke. Agon 
and revelation: western religion, art, and politics use the same drama¬ 
turgy of form, because they are all emanations of cold hierarchical 

Perseus was Cellini’s answer to the heroic marble David made by 
Michelangelo forty years earlier for the same public square. Both stat¬ 
ues descend from Donatello’s bronze David, the first beautiful nude 
and the first truly free-standing sculpture since the fall of Rome. Bla¬ 
tantly homosexual in inspiration, it shows David standing victorious 
over the severed head of Goliath, which he tramples underfoot (fig. 19). 
The story of David and Goliath, like that of Judith and Holofemes, 
would become a political symbol of Florentine resistance to tyranny. 
Donatello’s David is astonishingly young, even younger than the Kritios 
Boy. David’s contrapposto is languorously Hellenistic. The hand on hip 
and cocked knee create an air of sexual solicitation. From the side, one 
is struck by the peachy buttocks, bony shoulderblades, and petulantly 
protruding boy-belly. The combination of child’s physique with female 
body language is perverse and pederastic. Michelangelo is to adopt this 
erotic formula for his more athletic nudes, where it becomes overtly 

For H. W. Janson, Donatello’s David is “strangely androgynous,” “/e 
beau gargon sans merci, conscious only of his own sensuous beauty.” 
There may be a connection to Beccadelli’s poetry collection, Hermaph - 
roditus. 9 David has long feminine locks of hair, tangled with ribbons, 

19- Donatello, David, 
ca. 1430-32. 



Renaissance Form 

and a splendidly raffish wreathed hat, a version of the traveller’s hat of 
Hermes Psychopompos. But here is no traveller’s cloak, only exquisitely 
etched leather buskins. A pornographic trope: the half-dressed is more 
erotic than the totally nude. The feathery wing of Goliath’s helmet, like 
an escaping thought, climbs ticklishly up the inside of David’s thigh, 
pointing toward the genitals. Roman putti often display their genitals or 
mischievously urinate, a motif adopted for Renaissance fountains. 
Donatello poeticizes the ostentatio genitalium, a pagan showing. The 
hoary head of a monster conquered is a familiar iconographic detail, 
but here it vomits a wreathlike flood of blood ringing the statue. The 
stream is the giant’s, and the artist’s, own desire. David, plunging his 
massive sword to the center, has stolen the adult penis, as he has stolen 
hearts. The gushing blood, wing-topped, is a carnal cloud, Zeus as a 
maimed eagle bearing up Ganymede. 

I think Donatello’s David, even more than the ancient Venus Pudica ,, 
was the true model for Botticelli’s Venus. David, fusing Venus and Mars, 
skims into view on a swirl of the dreaming artist’s fantasy, half spas¬ 
modic release, half rising sigh. The David's shimmery, slithery bronze is 
a frozen wet dream, an Apollonian petrifaction. It is also a portrait of the 
artist, whose oppressed face appears like a signature at the bottom, 
another homoerotic motif borrowed by Michelangelo. The armed boy 
bursts like Athena from the artist’s imprisoned brain. 

The glamourous Apollonianism of Italian Renaissance art begins 
with Donatello, who frees sculpture from its medieval subordination to 
architecture. From his St George (1417), stepping from its niche, to 
David: stone knight to bronze kouros. Medieval armour is the pagan 
exoskeleton of western personality. Hard, shiny, absolutist, it is a prod¬ 
uct of that radiant Apollonian thing-making which passes from Egypt 
to Greece and Rome and resurfaces in the High Middle Ages as military 
design. The bronze David is St George's suit of armour turned inside 
out. David’s brazen nudity is the impermeability of western personality. 
His compact frame is supercondensed by the aggressive western eye. 
He is personality as sex and power. 

The beautiful boy is homosexuality’s greatest contribution to western 
culture. Un-Christian and anti-Christian, he is an iconic formalization 
of the relation between the eye and reality. Repeated in a thousand 
forms in Italian painting and sculpture, he is the ultimate symbol of 
Renaissance art. He is St. Sebastian, the Christian Adonis pierced by 
arrows, or ephebic St. Michael, whom the Renaissance took out of his 
Byzantine tunic and clad in silver armour. The Northern European 
Renaissance has few beautiful boys and no Apollonian grandeur. Fig- 

Italian Art 


ures (portraits excepted) rarely fill the pictorial plane. They are modest, 
flutteiy, and to my Mediterranean eye dry and insipid. They allow space 
to press upon them. Italian art makes personality and gesture florid and 
theatrical, in the fascist Apollonian manner. Donatello’s David stands 
on its own because it has rejected northern Gothicism for southern 
paganism. Its hardness and domination of space come from the artist’s 
rediscovery of the authentically western will, inflexible and amoral. Art 
has rearmed itself with the pagan glorification of matter. 

Donatello’s youths are always sexually ambiguous. His marble, 
clothed David (1409) has a graceful, feminine hand and girlishly deli¬ 
cate face with a small, pretty mouth. The statue was apparently based 
on an Etruscan goddess in the Medici collection. 10 The unfinished 
marble David in Washington has fleshy cheeks in classic Greek style. 
The bust of a youth in Florence has a sensitive face and sweet smile and 
a provocatively swelling throat and breast. With longer hair, he could 
pass as a woman. In his harrowing late period, Donatello abandons his 
ephebic dreams and banishes pagan eroticism from his art. The ema¬ 
ciated wooden John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene are withered by 
guilt and atonement. David's glossy Apollonian surface is scored and 
slashed, the flesh already bored by worms. Such self-laceration is typi¬ 
cal of Mediterranean Catholicism, with the ecstatic mortifications of its 
pagan heritage. 

The morally and sexually ambiguous smile of Donatello’s David has 
a long subsequent history. It goes directly to Michelangelo’s Victory after 
passing through Verrocchio to Leonardo, where it ends up on the Mona 
Lisa. Finally, we see it on Bernini’s androgynous angel impishly pierc¬ 
ing St. Teresa. David’s smile is dreamy and solipsistic. He is the beauti¬ 
ful boy as destroyer, triumphing over his admirers. He is western ar¬ 
moured ego as sex object, free-standing because separatist. Despite his 
beguiling insouciance, David’s Apollonian hardness, mental and mate¬ 
rial, is evident when we compare him to Caravaggio’s beautiful boys. 
Here, by the richness of oil paint, the Dionysian mouth intrudes on the 
Apollonian eye. Caravaggio’s cardinal metaphor of fruit is written all 
over his street urchins’ inviting nudity. Subtly, despite ourselves, we 
salivate. In high classic dignity, Donatello’s David, unlike Caravaggio’s 
bolder boys, does not meet our eyes. His sword keeps us at a distance. 
He has true Apollonian iconicism. While entranced by his eroticism, we 
look up to him and leave him in his temenos of sacred beauty. Like 
Nefertiti, he is a hierarch of the western eye. 

In my history of sexual personae, Botticelli is Donatello’s heir. I see 
Donatello’s androgynous David in every face in Botticelli. It is the same 

I 5 ° 

Renaissance Form 

elaboration of a single face into a whole universe of sexual ambiguity 
and muted color tones that happens from Rossetti to Burne-Jones. 
Botticelli turns Gothic’s wavy slimness and height into sophisticated 
Apollonian linearity. He shares with Pollaiuolo and Mantegna the 
sharp Byzantine outline that, thanks to Donatello, survived Masaccio’s 
new shadowed contours. Pollaiuolo’s anatomies are busy and strained, 
but Botticelli’s, in his best work, have a high classic unity and repose. 
Even in the segmented Primavera , personality is in the foreground, 
literally and figuratively. Botticelli thinks in terms of sexual personae, 
swelling with innate authority. I spoke of the descent of Byzantine icons, 
with their sharp edges and static frontality, from the Greek kouros. 
Botticelli resurrects the paganism in the Byzantine line. Inspired by 
Donatello’s free-standing David , he restores Apollonian iconicism to 
the painted figure. Botticelli’s clarity of outline is the same armouring of 
western personality we first saw in the enthroned Pharaoh Chephren. 
The hardness of the Botticellian body is, I venture, a subliminally 
homosexual motif, like the closing off of female intemality in Greek 
sculpture. It will become the Panzerhaft or glazed armouring of Man¬ 
nerist figures in Pontormo and Bronzino. By deduction, therefore, Man¬ 
nerist hardness is the ultimate result of Donatello’s momentous step 
from marble to bronze, from stone armour to armed nudity. 

In The Birth of Venus , Botticelli reimagines a chthonian goddess as 
Apollonian personality (fig. 20). She scuds to shore on a metallic scallop 
shell, the heraldic shield of woman’s marine origins. On her face is the 
pensive smile of Donatello’s dreamy David, and around her winds, as a 
heavy rope of strawberry-blonde hair, the ruddy wish-stream of Dona¬ 
tello’s bleeding Goliath. The Birth of Venus , thirteen feet wide, is a 
pagan altarpiece. The goddess’s monumentality and proud separatism 
come from sculpture. In this cultic epiphany, Venus dominates the eye, 
as she dominates the picture plane. She rises from the starburst shell (a 
trumpeting petrifaction of her splashing foam) to stand in Apollonian 
sunlight. She is sex and love washed clean of mystery and danger. The 
freshest of breezes skips across the scene, a dewy spume blown from the 
lips of a libidinous zephyr into a handmaiden’s billowing cloak. The 
shallow composition is Byzantine, as is the sharpness of line. Botticelli’s 
Venus is Kenneth Clark’s Crystalline Aphrodite. She is a springtime 
goddess, showered with flowers of mathematical articulation. There is 
no chthonian tangle or brooding pregnancy in this nature. Every tendril 
and herb has a fine Apollonian identity. The sea itself has no murky 
depth. Botticelli’s revised Venus is an Apollonian idea. Female secrecy 

Italian Art 

20. Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1485. 

and entrapment are abolished in her frank, yet decorous nudity, her 
perfect visibility. An air-blown or aerated womanliness: Raphael takes 
this from Botticelli for his genial Galatea . I find it again in the modern 
Galatea , the Life magazine pin-up of Rita Hayworth. 

The Birth of Venus is Botticelli’s cinematic resolution of the unsettling 
sexual complexities of his Primavera, another large, imposing painting 
(fig. 21). The Primavera is a black egg cracked open by The Birth of 
Venus. The transfer of tapestry design into paint in the Primavera pro¬ 
duces a sinister claustrophobia unacknowledged by scholarship. Be¬ 
cause of its enclosed space and atomized placement of figures, I classify 
the painting as decadent—the last gasp of Gothicism. The umbrella 
pine is Botticelli’s favorite symbol of contracted omnipotent nature, 
overhanging human thought. In the Primavera , the dark grove is an 
emanation of Spring’s bulging womb, at the picture’s exact center. Why 
do we not rejoice with the promise of fertility? We seem to be in elegy, 
not pastoral. The spindly trunks, ashy leaves, and metallic fruit belong 
to Dante. There is a sunless sky we cannot reach. The trees are a 
spiritual stockade. The figures are separated by invisible barriers. Each 
is locked in an allegorical cell, oblivious to the others. Even the three 
dancing Graces avert their eyes. Mercury turns his back on the whole 
scene, in superb indifference. He will pluck his own fruit, and of his own 
kind. This beautiful boy is Donatello’s David two years later. Puberty is 

Renaissance Form 


21. Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, 1478. 

fleshing him out. His hat, like his attitude, is haughtier and more 
warlike. Like the Graces’ impenetrable female circle, androgynous 
Mercuiy is narcissistic and self-complete. 

Across the way, Flora casts petals from her brimming, self-fecun¬ 
dated lap. What of her strange face framed by cropped male hair? After 
years of puzzling over my Uffizi copy, I realized Botticelli has joined two 
faces together, as in the dream sequence of Bergman’s Persona. One 
half belongs to a female aristocrat, cool, chaste, and self-possessed. The 
other belongs to a coarse gutter waif, roguish and lewd. Love for sale. 
Botticelli has condensed the extremes of sex and caste in an unsettling 
fusion of Renaissance personae. Flora, as much as Mercuiy, makes love 
to herself. The energies of the Primavera are boxed or, to use a term 
from English poetry, embowered. The zephyr so freely blowing in The 
Birth of Venus is caught in the trees here, his wings tangled and his 
stopped cheeks bursting. His impure thoughts dribble in leafy syllables 
from the lips of an anxious nymph. The allegory of the Primavera ,, 
however it may be worked out, cannot explain away the picture’s chill¬ 
ing atmospherics, its decadent precision of bleakness and elegance. 

Botticelli’s pictures have mood. This was something new in the his¬ 
tory of painting. I say it came from the sexual aura of Donatello’s David , 
the Apollonian corona which warns us away. Hauser speaks of Bot¬ 
ticelli’s “effeminate melancholy.” 11 Eroticized melancholy is every- 

Italian Art 


where in Botticelli, in angels, Madonnas, saints, boys, nymphs. It is 
extruded as subtle tints of rose, sepia, grey, pale blue. Similar color 
values in Piero della Francesca do not have the same perverse effect. 
Why? Because Botticelli, unlike Piero, is a poet of sexual personae. 
Botticelli’s personalities have a fixity and dreamy apartness. They offer 
themselves to the eye and yet rebuff our intimacy. Within their nervous 
carved lines, they have a heaviness or density of consciousness. Their 
dispassionate faces are like the barred backdrop of the Primavera , a 
cultivated closure. 

Donatello and Botticelli’s rediscovery of the Apollonian iconicism in 
western personality comes to them as a homosexual conceptualization, 
as in Greek high classicism. The Apollonian borderline, I said, is a 
turning away and a shutting out. The sharp Botticellian line is part of 
the self-definition of Renaissance personality, its withdrawal from me¬ 
dieval Christianity and its reorientation in secular space. Botticelli’s 
unity of tone is produced by his figures’ awakened yet entranced eyes. 
His personae, unreachable, contemplative, hover in a dream vision. 
They have the materiality of pagan pictorialism. Their pale smooth 
flesh glitters with the aristocracy of Apollonian beauty, an artistic dy¬ 
nasty founded in Egypt. 

This theatrical compounding of sexual personae with moody am¬ 
biance, sober and ascetic in Botticelli, is reproduced and darkened by 
Leonardo da Vinci. Botticelli’s subtle atmospherics are so transparent 
they are easy to miss. But in Leonardo a thundercloud of chiaroscuro is 
gathering. Leonardo, who melts the Apollonian line in shadow, is 
linked to Botticelli by the motif of an obsessively repeated face, used for 
both sexes. Leonardo and Michelangelo, solitary and depressive, cre¬ 
ated the persona of the artist as spiritual quester, as much a man of ideas 
as any philosopher. For both men, art, science, and construction were 
intellectual substitutes for sex—not sublimation but undisguised ag¬ 
gression, a hostile domination of nature. Their celibacy and ill temper 
were correlated, rational responses to our outrageous extension in these 
tyrannous bodies, branded with gender by mother nature. Leonardo 
dissected and anatomized the body to remove its female mysteries, 
unstringing muscles, detaching bones, even opening a womb to draw 
the huddled fetus. In his inventions, from flying machines to engines of 
war, the laws of dynamics were captured by the mathematical male 
mind. Michelangelo, by titanic masculine athleticism, tried to hammer 
matter into servitude. After the breakup of the ordered medieval cos¬ 
mos, both men turned anxiety into megalomania, a fanatical expansion 
of the will. But Leonardo painted little. Even his finished works had a 

*S 4 

Renaissance Form 

self-destruct quotient, like The Last Supper , with its experimental tech¬ 
nique, which made the paint almost immediately begin to peel off the 
refectory wall. 

Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is the premiere sexual persona of western art 
(fig. 22). She is the Renaissance Nefertiti, eternally watching. She is 
unnervingly placid. The most beautiful woman, making herself a per¬ 
fect stillness, will always turn Gorgon. I spoke of the Mona Lisa as 
Leonardo’s apotropaion, his household charm of warding-off. She is an 
ambassador from primeval times, when earth was a desert inhospitable 
to man. She presides over a landscape of raw rock and water. The 
distant river’s snaky meander is the elusiveness of her cold daemonic 
heart. Her figure is a stable female delta, a perceptual pyramid topped 
with the mystic eye. But the background is deceptive and incoherent. 
The mismatched horizon lines, which one rarely notices at first, are 
subliminally disorienting. They are the unbalanced scales of an arche¬ 
typal world without law or justice. Mona Lisa’s famous smile is a thin 
mouth receding into shadow. Her expression, like her puffy eyes, is 
hooded. The egglike head with its enormous plucked brow seems to 
pillow on the abundant, self-embraced Italian bosom. What is Mona 
Lisa thinking? Nothing, of course. Her blankness is her menace and 
our fear. She is Zeus, Leda, and egg rolled into one, another her¬ 
maphrodite deity pleasuring herself in mere being. Walter Pater is to 

Italian Art 


call her a “vampire,” coasting through history on her secret tasks. 
Despite many satires, the Mona Lisa will remain the world’s most 
famous painting. Supreme western works of art, like Oedipus Rex and 
Hamlet , preserve their indeterminacy through all interpretation. They 
are morally ungraspable. Even the Venus de Milo gained everything by 
losing her arms. Mona Lisa looks through us and passively accepts our 
admiration as her due. Some say she is pregnant. If so, she radiates the 
solipsism of woman gloating over her own creation. The picture com¬ 
bines fleshy amplitude, emotional obliqueness, and earthly devastation. 
Leonardo has drawn mother nature from life. 

In his major female paintings, Leonardo recloses the bright open 
space of The Birth of Venus, the temporary reprieve Botticelli’s Apollo¬ 
nian metric won against the entanglements of procreative nature. Leo¬ 
nardo’s sfumato , or smokiness, is a chthonian leakage, a spreading 
miasma. The Madonna of the Rocks (1483-90) is backed by a looming 
cavern and a forest of ancient stalagmites, brute ziggurats or phallic 
totems. The women of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne totter at the 
edge of a stony cliff, harsh and barren (fig. 23). In the distance is a 
ghostly moonscape, like blasted Gothic cathedrals. These peaceful 
scenes of mother and child have a chthonian undertow, threatening to 
suck us back to earth-cult. Mona Lisa’s ambiguous smile is a hieroglyph 
symbolizing the link between Leonardo’s sexual personae and their 


Renaissance Form 

enshrouding atmosphere, a strange light which is their own stormy 
inner weather. The same smile appears on Leda and both women of The 
Virgin with St. Anne and even on two male figures, St. John the Baptist 
and its twin Bacchus , where smile and pointing finger turn seductive 
and depraved. So Leonardo’s smile is androgynous, a sexual hex sign. It 
is beginning to bud on the lips of the gesturing angel of The Madonna of 
the Rocks , a male so feminine that students seeing the picture for the 
first time insist he is a woman. 

Freud traces the mysterious smile to Leonardo’s buried memory 
of the lost biological mother preceding his adoptive mother, the two 
women of The Virgin with St Anne. Freud connects the painting to 
Leonardo’s childhood dream of a bird of prey, the hermaphroditic 
Egyptian vulture goddess, Mut. Meyer Schapiro rejects Freud’s reason¬ 
ing and claims the source of the Leonardo smile is in his master 
Verrocchio. The grouping of the two women was traditional, says Scha¬ 
piro, their oddly close ages signifying “the theological idealization of 
Anne as the double of her daughter Maiy.” 12 But there is nothing 
sinister or disturbing in the gentle Verrocchio. I trace the smile all the 
way back through Botticelli to Donatello and find it amoral, solipsistic, 
and gender-crossing from the start. Leonardo injected Verrocchio with 
his own perversity: one of his earliest works is the androgynous angel he 
painted as an apprentice in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (1472). 

Freud rightly senses uncanniness in Leonardo’s doubling of St. Anne 
and the Virgin. Mary seems not so much sitting on Anne’s lap as 
slipping off it. The figures are like photographic superimpositions, two 
images seen simultaneously, eerie and hallucinatory. Yes, the women 
are doubles, just like Demeter and Persephone. Both Famell and Fra¬ 
zer comment on Greek depictions of divine mother and daughter as 
“twin-sisters,” their “identity of substance” symbolizing the stages of 
vegetable growth. 15 In Leonardo’s charcoal cartoon (1499) and finished 
panel, St. Anne’s magnetic attentiveness to her companion seems men¬ 
acingly or lasciviously intense. Anne’s blocky fist of a gesture in the 
cartoon turns into a mannish, piratical hand on hip in the painting. 
Love in Leonardo is never normal. His mystic doubling of Anne and 
Mary, their uncertain spatial placement and ambiguous smiles, and the 
bleached landscape give the painting an archetypal power found no¬ 
where else in Renaissance art except in Michelangelo. St. Anne and the 
Virgin are joined in autocratic nature-rule. These divine twin sisters are 
one archaic personality that has parthenogenetically cloned itself. Life 
is an endless series of self-replicating females. Leonardo reverses Gen¬ 
esis, so it is maleness, in the chubby infant Jesus, that is successive and 

Italian Art 

1 57 

subordinate to femaleness. But as the grotesque landscape shows, this is 
no celebration of female power. Like Michelangelo, Leonardo finds the 
condition of male servitude intolerable, and rightly so. 

I give the name “allegorical repletion” to the doubling of The Virgin 
with St. Anne. The term describes a redundant proliferation of homolo¬ 
gous identities in a matrix of sexual ambiguity. Allegorical repletion is 
present in the Hymen episode ending Shakespeare’s As You Like It; in 
the incestuous mirroring of characters and family names of Emily 
Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; and in two surreal Rossetti paintings, As - 
tarte Syriaca and The Bower Meadow, which contain ominously multi¬ 
ple versions of a single melancholy female face. Leonardo’s suffocating 
doubling of figures in The Virgin with St. Anne is another version of 
Mona Lisa's stolid, self-contained hermaphroditism. We now know 
what a pregnant Mona Lisa carries within her: her fetal twin. The theme 
of Leonardo’s two paintings is the same: the male eye and psyche 
flooded by female power. Leonardo’s neatest composition is The Last 
Supper (1495-98). Is there a connection between the all-male Passover 
party and the regular, rational mathematical design of the room, with its 
perspective lines converging behind Christ’s head? Male space makes 
sense in Leonardo. But female space is crowded, murky, eccentric, 
destabilizing. Leonardo’s paintings may be so few in number because 
the journey from idea to rectangular picture plane was beset with 
female daemons. Science and engineering, then as now, are Apollonian 
havens from the vertigo of gender. 

Both Leonardo and Michelangelo are commonly classified as homo¬ 
sexual, but whatever sex they may have had was surely rare and anoma¬ 
lous. The monastic strain runs deep in the Italian temper. Freud ob¬ 
serves that it is emotional attraction, not physical activity which proves 
sexual orientation. In their private lives, Leonardo and Michelangelo 
were evidently interested only in male beauty. Of course, they had no 
real private lives apart from art and intellect. They were half-mad 
visionaries, as misanthropic as hermit saints. Their ritualistic cultism 
was a natural flowering of Mediterranean paganism: extremism, mili¬ 
tancy, and hieraticism are always near at hand for the Italian Catholic. 
Leonardo and Michelangelo’s homosexuality was part of their angry 
quest for autonomy of imagination, against everyone and everything— 
parents, teachers, friends, rivals, society, nature, religion, God. The 
western dynamic of conflict and combat is crystal-clear in them. They 
have no Christian charity or generosity, only pagan hunger to conquer, 
surpass, subdue by force. We too are their subjects. Their dominance 
demands our submission. The two geniuses of the High Renaissance 

Renaissance Form 

remake art by making art aggressive. Homosexuality in Leonardo and 
Michelangelo was intellectual as well as erotic, in the western way. It 
was a resistance to the grossest of human dependencies, our enslave¬ 
ment by nature. 

Why was Michelangelo so productive as an artist and Leonardo so 
frustrated? Michelangelo’s total output was staggering, a virtuosity in 
sculpture, painting, and architecture unparalleled in the history of the 
arts. The vigor and vitality of the Renaissance flowed into him, as into 
Shakespeare. Why did Leonardo complete so little? My answer is that 
his technique and theme were at odds. Style and sexual personae 
sabotage each other. The smokiness of sfumato is Dionysian mistiness, 
the fog hanging over the chthonian swamp. Decadent Euripides, we 
saw, uses Dionysian liquidity to destroy Apollonian Aeschylus. But 
Leonardo is a high classicist, an archon of the mathematical mind. He 
wants to subdue mother nature, but in depicting her, he allows her to 
dictate his style. Sfumato is her game. The more he plays it, the less he 
can paint. Even the self-dissolving Last Supper is infected by her. 

Michelangelo, on the other hand, an athlete stonecutter, began with 
sculpture and retained its Apollonian laws in painting, which the pope 
forced on him in the Sistine Chapel. Oil painting and color, said Mi¬ 
chelangelo, are for “women and the lazy.” His sharp-edged Apollonian 
style is the only way to beat back mother nature. It is the hieratic 
signature of the western will. This is why Leonardo’s sketches and 
private notebooks, with their Apollonian pen line, are so voluminous. 
But there is never a final victory in fighting nature. Michelangelo was 
locked into a pattern of endlessly renewed anxiety. Again and again and 
again. To the end of his long life, Michelangelo leapt from labor to 
labor, piling up the man-mountain of his stunning achievement. He 
converted a quest for freedom into another enslavement, sweat-stained, 
day blurring into night. His bequest is the most brilliant series of 
Apollonian images since Athens’ revival of Egypt’s royal glamour. 

Michelangelo’s huge David (1501 -04) is companion to Mona Lisa in 
the star chart of Renaissance sexual personae. The original, removed in 
1873 from the weather, is enshrined in a simple temple of pagan design. 
It is a true kouros, Donatello’s David as teenaged athlete, a sinewy bov- 
man. We see him before action rather than after. He glares toward 
Goliath along a plane of the aggressive western eye. His body is half¬ 
resolute, half-apprehensive, the left leg shrinking away but sending its 
energy into the hand-held stone, about to rise to the slingshot. In its 
monumentality and armoured hardness, David is an apotheosis of the 
male body as Apollonian perfection. The tension of male will has 

Italian Art 


contracted the torso, so head and hands seem overlarge. This contrac¬ 
tion is a sexual condensation, a homoerotic defeat of female murk and 
interiority. The David overwhelms the pilgrim viewer by its blazing 
solar radiation, its defiant domination of space. The very air around it 
seems as impenetrable as the body itself. David, like Michelangelo, 
fends us off. The dreaminess of Donatello’s charmer is gone. Michelan¬ 
gelo’s David is awakened western consciousness, studying the enemy in 
the cold hostile light of Apollonian day. 

Michelangelo’s obsessive theme is glorified maleness. Moses (1513— 
15) Hellenizes another Biblical persona. It is an astonishing improvisa¬ 
tion on pagan images. The rippling Belvedere Torso swells Moses’ bulg¬ 
ing biceps. The serpentine undulations of the just-excavated Laocoon 
spill through the long beard, trapping Moses’ index finger, his own 
halted motivation. Massed Greek draperies hang on the powerful leg 
like a shroud. The Hebraic lawgiver, letting slip the stone tablets, breaks 
his own code. Like David, he glares furiously to the left. He sees the 
golden idol of his fickle people. But the artist raises Moses as a new idol, 
Zeus-Jehovah, a theatrical amalgam of intellectual and physical force. 
Moses makes God in his own image. And Michelangelo creates as an 
entrancing father-figure the one sexual persona more virile than he. 

The Moses’ maleness is absolute. It drives femaleness out of existence. 
There are no mothers in this cosmos. Only monumental Assyrian relief 
has such propagandistic machismo. We come to the limit of sexual rep¬ 
resentation. The female body can never attain such grandiosity of asser¬ 
tion. Moses is an idealization, but its exaggerations are of normal physi¬ 
cal contours produced in men by male hormone. This definitive articu¬ 
lation and massiness of muscle and joint are unavailable to women 
except through automedication with steroids. John Addington Symonds 
says that “the superiority of male beauty” consists in “the complete 
organization of the body as the supreme instrument of vital energy.” 14 I 
agree. When admiring the sleek body of a woman athlete, I see an¬ 
drogyny, not femaleness. I honor her capture of a male mode. Moses is 
specifically western in its masculinity. Nothing in the art of other cul¬ 
tures resembles it in stature or abundant facial hair. Michelangelo’s 
electrifying icon of the Hebrew iconoclast is a racist paradigm of Greek 
physical culture. The Apollonian, I said, is a Dorian and therefore 
Aryan aesthetic. Moses challenges modem liberal pieties on every front. 
It is beauty as power, beyond ethics. 

Michelangelo’s exaltation of maleness deforms his depiction of wom¬ 
en. Like many Renaissance artists, he used male models for female 
figures, since a woman posing nude was scandalous. But from the 


Renaissance Form 

evidence of his surviving drawings, Michelangelo never sketched any 
woman from life, dressed or not Furthermore, the cross-sexual origin 
of his female Figures has left a strong visual residue. The best examples 
are the Sibyls of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The early drawing for the 
Libyan Sibyl is obviously of a male model, whose athletic physique 
survives in the Final Figure. The Delphic and Eritrean Sibyls have start¬ 
lingly heavy male arms. The old Cumaean Sibyl is one of the most 
fantastic sexual personae in art (Fig. 24). She has grim wizened features 
yet bursting breasts, fat as pumpkins. Her lumbering shoulder and arm 
are brawny beyond human maleness. She is witch, hag, wet nurse. She 
is Michelangelo’s Mona Lisa , mother nature in the flesh, old as time but 
teeming with coarse fertility. 

Cousins to the Sibyls are the reclining female nudes of the Medici 
Chapel (1520—34), products of Michelangelo’s Mannerist late phase. 
No one knows what these Figures mean or even what they should be 
called. Anxious Dawn , lifting a listless hand, flexes her male bicep. 
Night bares a hammy haunch as she twists in restless half-sleep, her 
abdomen ridged like a washboard (Fig. 25). The women’s breasts are 
knobby protuberances stuck to male torsos. Clark calls them “humiliat¬ 
ing appendages.” 15 Night's choppy nipples are angry and puckered. 
Who would care to suck such sour pippins? Among Renaissance per¬ 
sonae, Michelangelo’s massive females, including Leda and the muscu¬ 
lar Madonna of the Doni Tondo , belong to a sexual cabal. I classify them 
as viragos, uniquely blending male and female. With Night as my 
model, I define the virago as a fusion of Great Mother and Amazon, but 
without the fecundity of the former or free movement of the latter. Like 
Artemis, the Amazon has an adolescent body type. But the virago is 
large-breasted, sexually mature, her body heavy and inert. She is spir¬ 
itually imprisoned and poisoned. Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s bisexual 
harlot Muse, was such a sterile virago, indolent and self-thwarting. 
Baudelaire in fact wrote a verse about Michelangelo’s Night (“The 
Ideal”). The virago is one of our darkest androgynes. The Medici 
Chapel nudes, perched uncomfortably on their slippery, too-small 
tombs, labor and bring forth nothing. Night is a Gorgon Mona Lisa who 
has devoured her own rocky landscape. The virago is self-enclosed, 
paralyzed, and dyspeptic. 

In art, monumentality or abstraction impersonalizes and therefore 
masculinizes women. This principle applies to Michelangelo, the Nef- 
ertiti bust, and Assyrian relief, with its beefy muscle-bound goddesses. 
Michelangelo’s women are not all androgynes. There is winsome Eve 
peeking brightly from the crook of God’s arm in the Creation of Man. 

Italian Art 

And there is the pure, tranquil Virgin of the Rome Pieta. But in both 
cases, the female body is largely concealed. Eve and Mary’s appealing 
femininity is made possible for Michelangelo by suppression of their 
bodies. Moreover, the women appear with two of his most magnificent 
male nudes, who absorb his imagination. Eve and Mary are hand¬ 
maidens of a sublime but enervated masculinity, without which Michel- 

i 62 

Renaissance Form 

25. Michelangelo, Night, 1525-31. 

angelo would never dream of bringing them into being. Adrian Stokes 
calls the Sistine God’s flaring, creature-packed cloak a “uterine man¬ 
tle.” 16 So Eve is just a particle subdivided from a hermaphrodite male 
deity. The medieval Madonna Misericordia, tenting humanity beneath 
her wings, has been robbed of her garment by the aggressive Sistine 

Michelangelo’s life work is an epic in which femininity plays little 
part. His lyric poetry resembles Shakespeare’s sonnets in its dual in¬ 
spiration: a beautiful boy, Tommaso Cavalieri, and a potent woman, 
Vittoria Colonna, who combines the sexes. I cited, apropos of the Del¬ 
phic oracle, Michelangelo’s salute to Colonna as “a man, a god rather, 
inside a woman.” This makes mythologically intelligible his depiction 
of the Sibyls as half-male viragos. Michelangelo’s late admiration for 
the pious Colonna, who took to a convent after her husband’s death, has 
been misunderstood as romance by many commentators. She became 
one of Michelangelo’s sexual personae, but she inspired no eroticism. 
She was a hermaphrodite Muse, a voice of judgment, appealing to his 
admiration for hierarchic force. She did not exist as a body. She was an 
invisible mother-father, hovering like the Sistine Sibyls midway be¬ 
tween heaven and earth. 

Italian Art 


Michelangelo, we have seen, invested his imaginative energies nearly 
exclusively in masculinity. But an occult rule of his art is that the 
masculine is in constant danger of melting into the feminine. Consider 
as a sexual persona the Medici Chapel’s idealized portrait of Giuliano 
de’ Medici, Duke of Nemours (fig. 26). This statue repeats the pose of 
the awesome Moses , but it is hemmed in its narrow niche in Mannerist 
closure, the imprisonment of late-phase art. Michelangelo packs Do¬ 
natello’s free male figure back into its Gothic pen. Despite its vigorous 
athleticism, the Giuliano has a wonderful half-female glamour. The 
neck supporting the Apollo Belvedere head is sinuous, swanlike, and 
feminine. The torso is suggestively explicit. First, the breasts are exces¬ 
sively developed for a male. Second, the torso is a brilliant fantasia 
on the cuirasse esthetique , the molding of a Roman leather or bronze 
breastplate to the personal imprint of the chest. Vasari says of the 
Giuliano , “The very buskins and cuirass seem not of this world.” 17 The 
chest and abdominal muscles are fluent, tactile, sensual. Michelangelo 
so persuasively reproduces human skin folds on the cuirass’s caul-like 
transparency that the metal shoulder clomps seem to be biting into 
living flesh. I always think of the nipple-piercing pins in sadomasochis¬ 
tic sex shops. Surely this lurid motif has come to Michelangelo from the 
Capitoline bust of the emperor Commodus draped in Hercules’ lion- 
skin, open jaws capping his head and claws resting on his chest. But 
Michelangelo perversely sexualizes it. Unlike his pensive brother Lo¬ 
renzo, sitting across the chapel in an ordinary cuirass, Giuliano is 
exquisitely autoerotic. 

Michelangelo likes to stress the male chest. Of examples like the 
mighty Christ of The Last Judgment , Clark speaks of “that strange 
compulsion which made him thicken a tcrso till it is almost square,” 
“almost a deformation.” 18 Giuliano’s chest has erotic delicacy and the 
intelligence and sensibility one normally expects of a face. John Pope- 
Hennessy says Michelangelo was “deeply uninterested” in portrai¬ 
ture. 19 Michelangelo’s only portrait, as Vasari exclaims, is of the beauti¬ 
ful Tommaso Cavalieri. I propose that the luxurious chest of Giuliano 
de' Medici is the second of Michelangelo’s homosexual portraits. It is 
analogous to the glossy buttocks of the Kritios Boy,\ which borrow 
artistic energy from the still, sober, high classic face. Giuliano's flesh¬ 
piercing ornaments are subliminally sodomitic. They are an iron pen 
filling the blank page of the torso with flowing erotic script. The male 
torso is Michelangelo’s landscape, the broad stage of human experience 
and action. Giuliano's mounded breasts are forbidden Cities of the 

26. Michelangelo, Giuliano de' Medici, 1531—34. 


Italian Art 


Giuliano de’ Medici belongs to a category of Renaissance androgyne 
separate from that of the beautiful boy. I call it “Epicoene, or the man of 
beauty,” after Ben Jonson’s transvestite play, Epicoene , or The Silent 
Woman. The man of beauty has an active, athletic adult maleness. But 
in insolent narcissism, he retains an ephebic transsexual quality, ex¬ 
pressed in a feminine alabaster skin, here arising from the dazzling 
white marble. Three other examples of my Epicoene category are 
George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, Lord Byron, and Elvis 
Presley, all dangerous men of notorious charisma. 

Gender in the Giuliano is barely held in balance by the male military 
regalia. The foursquare male chest of resolute western will is disordered 
by the serpentine disengagement of the curvy neck. A feminine mas¬ 
ochism is beginning to encroach upon the statue through the limp 
flipped wrist and pierced breasts. The theme of masochistic sensuality is 
already present in the so-called Dying Slave , one of a series of “Cap¬ 
tives” for the uncompleted tomb of Julius II (fig. 27). The huge statue 
(height 7' 6V2") is usually explained in Neoplatonic terms as a symbol of 
the soul’s struggle against the body. But the theoiy leaves too much 
emotional overflow. Leg flexed, the languid Dying Slave poses like a 
beauty queen, voluptuously postorgasmic. The cross-sexual element 
comes partly from the statue’s Greek models, both female: a wounded 
Niobid and the Dying Amazon, with raised arm. The Dying Slave is a 
sexual reversal of Michelangelo’s alertly masculine David , whose leg 
placement it parodies. A phantasmic band of cloth winds the eroticized 
chest, touched by dainty fingers of onanistic tenderness, a gesture bor¬ 
rowed from Donatello’s early marble David. The combination of ath¬ 
letic male physique with female mood and body language is perverse. It 
turns the milder flaunting of Donatello’s bronze David into decadent 
sexual cultism, an ecstasy of sadomasochistic bondage. The Dying 
Slave , backed by the lurking ape of bestial instinct, is a pagan crucifix. 
This is a gratified St. Sebastian who has swallowed his tormentors’ 
shafts. He drifts in his own perfect fantasy. When as a youngster I saw a 
picture of this statue, I was fascinated by its blatant eroticism, which 
scholarship, in its quick escape to allegory, studiously ignores. 

The Victory (1532—34) is another of Michelangelo’s provocative 
works of sexualized theater: a beautiful youth with cruelly blank Dona¬ 
tello face crushes his knee upon a hogtied older man, whose bearded 
face resembles Michelangelo’s. Is the defeated elder the Old Adam of 
experience? Yawn. Sexual personae are the red flame of Renaissance 
imagination. Victory is a homage to Donatello’s David , who treads the 
grizzled head of Goliath. In the psychic force-field of the aggressive 


Renaissance Form 

western eye, beauty dominates the observer. All-dominating Michelan¬ 
gelo is undone and humiliated by his own homosexual eye. The beauti¬ 
ful boy, with his beckoning feminine hand, is an angel-vampire leaping 
up with Michelangelo’s repressed energy, the burden of his jailed self. I 
cannot be convinced that great artists are moralists. Art is first ap¬ 
pearances, then meaning. The Dying Slave and Victory ; as well as the 
twenty exhibitionistically self-twining ignudi or nude youths of the 
Sistine ceiling, are complex pagan sex objects. These works resemble 
Spenser’s Faerie Queene in the way that moral allegory has wandered 
into prurient sexual naturalism. 

Michelangelo’s primary principle is the quest for Apollonian form. 

Italian Art 


His figures must exert enormous pressure to keep their shape. Our and 
the artist’s eye must remain vigilant and aggressive. The dialectic be¬ 
tween definitiveness and dissolution is evident as early as Bacchus 
(1497). “Androgynous and seductive,” in Robert Liebert’s phrase, Mi¬ 
chelangelo’s boyish wine-god careens unsteadily, offering us his lifted 
cup. 20 But the seduction is more than sexual. Major western sculpture, I 
said, is Apollonian. Therefore Bacchus staggering is Apollonian form 
seduced by the chthonian, deliquescing. Mother earth calls. Michelan¬ 
gelo never has to use Bacchus overtly again, since his figures artistically 
assimilate the Dionysian theme. Clark speaks of “a feeling of thundery 
oppression” in Michelangelo’s torsos. Stokes sees in the sculpture and 
painting “a state of uneasy passivity, known to us in terms of an oppres¬ 
sive weight.” 21 What is it that oppresses Michelangelo’s figures? His 
terribilita (“awesomeness” or “fearfulness”) is the malign gravitation of 
mother nature, who dissolves all forms in her cycle of change and 
remaking. The Apollonian line asserts the identity of objects. Sculptural 
contour is so emphatic in Michelangelo because of the danger of femi¬ 
nine surrender to nature. 

Like Greek artists indifferent to landscape, Michelangelo makes the 
male figure the field of combat. His resistance to nature is like William 
Blake’s: both men are obsessed with the dream of a world generated 
and sustained by masculinity alone. To materialize that world, the 
choleric Michelangelo drove himself with remorseless athleticism, a 
hyperbolic titanism. But a wholly masculine cosmos is untenable. It 
cannot last even when erected by a genius. Consequently, Michelan¬ 
gelo’s male figures are exhausted with their effort and helplessly in¬ 
fected by femininity, which shimmies upward from a spiritually opaque 
gravitational center. The pornographic fluorescence of the Dying Slave 
comes from its will-lessness, its sensually engorged surrender. The 
ruggedly masculine Michelangelo, like Ernest Hemingway, required 
rituals of male inflation to fight off the lure of transsexual submission. 
Mother nature turns us all to eunuchs. 

Nearly everything in Michelangelo has some sexually disturbing un¬ 
dercurrent. Effeminates cavort behind the Holy Family of the Doni 
Tondo , pagan desire escaping Christian control. The Sistine ignudi 
seem like castrates, ritually tormented initiates of an unknown cult. 
Even the great Pieta , surely partly inspired by Botticelli’s Venus and 
Mars , is a tableau of female immortality and perishable manhood. In 
archetypal terms, has the Holy Mother not drained her son? Mor- 
bidezza , the Pieta' s softness or delicacy of modelling, also means “ef¬ 
feminacy” in Italian. Perhaps the Medici Chapel nudes are less mas- 


Renaissance Form 

culine women than men being transformed, as in a nightmare, into 
women. Michelangelo’s sexual ambiguities are apotropaic formulas, 
repeating what is feared in order to drive it off. 

Intransigent Michelangelo is the best example of the western aes¬ 
thetic of perceptual control. The art object, in its Apollonian unity and 
clarity, is a protest against the too-muchness of nature. Late in Michel¬ 
angelo’s career, the multiplicity of objects rebounds, breaking back into 
the Mannerist Last Judgment (1536-41) and filling it with a ditheiy 
mass of churning bodies. But by this point the artist is starting to flag in 
his Apollonian enterprise. Turning, like Donatello and Botticelli, back 
to the church, he portrays himself as a shapeless flayed skin in St. 
Bartholomew’s grasp and leaves his mammoth figures half-buried in 
stone. Apollonian form deflates or aborts. Matter has won. 

Renaissance Apollonianism originated in Florence and 
spread to Rome. Its emphatic sharp edge, descending through Byzan¬ 
tine style from the Greek kouros, was initially a homosexual idea, a line 
drawn against female nature. It then passed into general artistic usage 
and lost its secret polemicism. Florentine intellectuality and Florentine 
homosexuality were linked phenomena. Beautiful boys, everywhere in 
Florentine art, rarely appear in Venetian painting, which is full of 
luscious female nudes. Mercantile Venice did not seethe with philoso¬ 
phers and crackpots, like Florence. In art, fleshy Venetian women, half- 
Oriental odalisques, relax in cordial landscapes—a far cry from Leo¬ 
nardo’s abandoned rock quarries. Venetian personae and Venetian 
landscape are equally heterosexual. Venice’s appreciation of female 
beauty allowed acceptance of rather than resistance toward nature. Was 
this not the result of the city’s unique physical character? Venice, veined 
by water, is in placid relation to marine nature. Its people and artists 
imaginatively internalized female fluidity, the prime chthonian princi¬ 
ple. The Renaissance City of Art, a triumph of architectural ingenuity, 
was its own balance of Apollonian and Dionysian and did not need to 
explore these ideas in painting. That balance was eventually disrupted 
by the ubiquity and omnipotence of Venetian water. The city rotted, 
flooded, and began to sink. Mann records its modern degeneration in 
Death in Venice. 

Hard-bodied boy-form is implicit in Florentine aesthetics. It surely 
influenced the Florentine female nude, like Botticelli’s Venus, with her 
small breasts and tall, slim build. Procreativeness was neither a Floren¬ 
tine nor an Athenian value. The luxuriance savored by Venice in female 
curves was projected by Florentine artists into men’s flowing hair, one 

Italian Art 


of the most mesmerizing themes of Renaissance art. Like Michelan¬ 
gelo’s muscle-man Moses , this is a natively western mode. Only Cauca¬ 
sians, a motley blend of ethnic types, have such a variety of hair colors 
and consistencies. Portrait art has made European hair a gorgeous 
palette of sexual personae. In the Renaissance as now, a pretty boy with 
a long, fine head of hair has a drop-dead androgynous allure. All those 
dashing Italian Renaissance angels are crowned with pagan physicality. 

Raphael of Urbino, youngest of the three High Renaissance geniuses, 
diverted Florence’s homoerotic glamour back toward the procreative 
female. He created the Christmas-card persona of the warm Madonna, 
a simple peasant girl of open face and arms. Raphael was heavily 
influenced by Leonardo and Michelangelo, who enabled him to break 
from his master Perugino, with his spare, bland, small-figured North¬ 
ern European style. But Raphael takes the sexual ambiguity and psy¬ 
chological conflict out of Leonardo and Michelangelo. He does to them 
what Keats does to Coleridge, sweetening and purifying the daemonic, 
making the maternal a blessing rather than a curse. Raphael subtly 
corrects his teachers. His matchless glow of color, a half-liquid envelope 
of feminine emotion, is a clarification of Leonardo’s louring atmo¬ 
sphere. From the surviving portraits and self-portraits of all three art¬ 
ists, Raphael seems the most feminine in manner and appearance. His 
turn toward woman prefigures the sexual shift of late-Renaissance art. 

In Mannerism and Baroque, as in Hellenistic art, the sexes repolar¬ 
ize. Cellini’s Perseus, with whom we began, holds his scimitar at crotch 
level to punctuate his victory over the femme fatale, whose dripping 
head he brandishes aloft. Bernini’s David, a self-portrait, is stoutly 
masculine and in mad motion. The androgyny and Apollonian apart¬ 
ness of the first Renaissance Davids have been redefined in late-phase 
terms. Bernini’s Apollo pursues a nymph melting into a bristling tree. 
Metamorphosis is the Dionysian principle of Baroque illusionism. Ber¬ 
nini even stations four giant, undulating, brazen pagan serpents to hold 
up the canopy over the main altar of Christendom. The supreme Ba¬ 
roque work, his St Teresa in Ecstasy ; a sex-parody of Renaissance 
Annunciations, makes the armed androgyne merely a titillating bou¬ 
doir provocateur. The orgasmic victim is in full sail on a Dionysian 
cloud. Woman, with all her vibrating internality, takes center stage. 

Spenser and Apollo 

The Faerie Queene 

English literature is one of the supreme constructions in 
the history of art. It is both music and philosophy, a sensory stream of 
thought feeding each generation of writers from the Middle Ages to 
modernism. English literary distinction begins in the Renaissance and 
is the creation of one man, Edmund Spenser. His epic poem, The Faerie 
Queene (1590, 1596), does for the English Renaissance what painting 
and sculpture did for the Italian. Spenser is Botticelli’s heir. By his 
intuitive grasp of the hard-edged Apollonian line, Spenser puts English 
literature into the ancient dynasty of western sexual personae. The arts, 
except for portraiture, were weak in the English Renaissance, partly 
because of Henry VIQ’s destruction of Cathohc images. Spenser recre¬ 
ates English pictorialism in poetic form. His influence upon later writ¬ 
ers, beginning with Shakespeare, was incalculable. It was through 
Spenser’s quarrel with himself that English literature gained its amaz¬ 
ing complexity. Romantic poetry’s chthonian daemonism, for example, 
is a flowering of the secret repressions of The Faerie Queene . We will see 
it pass from Coleridge to Poe to Baudelaire and beyond. Spenser in¬ 
vented the artistic vocabulary of English poetry, which he turned into a 
meditation on nature and society, on sex, art, and power. 

At the moment, The Faerie Queene is a great beached whale, ma¬ 
rooned on the desert shores of English departments. Spenser is a hos¬ 
tage of his own critics, who have thrown up a thicket of unreadable 
commentary around him. Renaissance studies are woefully over¬ 
specialized; a lurid era has been reduced to a jumble of multilingual 
footnotes. Efforts to draw different arts or nations into one frame of 
reference are resisted. Even Spenser and Shakespeare are rarely dis¬ 
cussed together. The Faerie Queene has been ruined for many students 

The Faerie Queene 


by the numbingly moralistic way it is taught. Spenser spoke to other 
poets as a bard, not a preacher. And when bards summon the Muse, 
they themselves may not always know what they speak. 

Scholars begin English literature with Chaucer and list Spenser as his 
disciple. But English literature would have remained merely national if 
it had really followed Chaucer. I would argue that Spenser made En¬ 
glish literature world-class only by abandoning Chaucer and erad¬ 
icating his influence. There is a huge shift of style between the Chau¬ 
cerian Shepheardes Calendar (1579), which made Spenser’s name, and 
The Faerie Queene , begun the same year. Pastoral eclogue was a pagan 
genre, adopted by apprentice Vergil, but The Shepheardes Calendar is 
medieval Christian in tone and detail. 

Through his friendship with Sir Philip Sidney, an advocate of Cas- 
tiglione’s aristocratic ideals, and through his devotion to the queen, to 
whom he dedicated The Faerie Queene , Spenser reawoke the mystic 
hieraticism of power latent in western sexual personae. The mass glori¬ 
fication of Elizabeth I revived the radiant laws of Apollonian beauty. 
Her portraits are Byzantine icons, stiffly ceremonial and encrusted with 
jewels. I spoke of the origins of Botticelli’s hard edge in Byzantine art 
and Donatello’s sculpture. We know Spenser was familiar with some 
Botticelli: that he modelled a major sex scene in The Faerie Queene on 
Botticelli’s Venus and Mars was one of the earliest observations of 
Spenser criticism. Copies of Italian art came to England largely in the 
form of engravings, a new technique that would intensify hard Apollo¬ 
nian contours and add them even when absent in the original. The 
Faerie Queene has an Apollonian brilliance found nowhere in Spenser’s 
medieval or Renaissance sources, including Ariosto, who lacks his as¬ 
perity and iconicism, his concentration and hard edge. 

The Faerie Queene turns to pagan style to defeat Christian Chaucer. 
My theory of comedy puts Oscar Wilde in the same haughty Apollonian 
line as Spenser. Chaucer’s comic persona resembles that of Charlie 
Chaplin’s Little Tramp, whom I seem to be alone in loathing. Chaucer’s 
humanism is predicated on the common man, on our shared foibles and 
frailties, our daily muddle. He absolves his admirers of guilt. There is 
no fear and trembling in his theology. Chaucer’s conviviality is full of 
winks, chuckles, and nudges. The hearty warmth of it all makes my skin 
crawl. Chaucer is a populist, while Spenser is a hierarchist. The Faerie 
Queene , like Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest , is aristocratic in 
form and content. Chaucer, and here is his continuing appeal, accepts 
the flesh. But the Apollonian resists nature by its hostile eye-drawn line. 
For me, reading Chaucer is like fighting through cattails while being 


Spenser and Apollo 

worried by midges. There are too many words , Gothic flutters and 
curlicues. Portraiture in The Canterbury Tales has a scratchy, rustling 
detail coming, like Northern European painting, from manuscript il¬ 
lumination. In Greco-Roman terms, it is a coy, labored style. Wise 
Chaucer, putting roses in the cheeks of medieval asceticism, opposes 
absolutism and extremism in all things. But the idealizing Apollonian 
mode is absolutist and extremist from the first architectural overstate¬ 
ments of Old Kingdom Egypt. Western greatness is unwise, mad, inhu¬ 

Revolutionary Spenser puts the eye into English poetry. Horace’s 
theory that a poem should be like a picture was much discussed in the 
Renaissance. But Spenser goes far beyond this. Image, A. C. Hamilton 
rightly insists, is as crucial as allegory . 1 The aggressive eye is the con¬ 
ceptualizing power of The Faerie Queene and the master of its largest 
ideas. Spenser is history’s first theorist of aggression, anticipating 
Hobbes, Sade, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud. Only Leonardo and 
Michelangelo before him had struggled with the moral problem of the 
awakened eye. Spenser’s pagan eye bums cozy Chaucer right out of 
English poetiy. Not since Homer had there been so cinematic a poet. 
Spenser’s long blazing sightlines prefigure the epic sweep of film and 
the probing light-beam of the projector. The opening up of secular 
space in Italian painting through perspective is paralleled in the vast 
distances of The Faerie Queene . Spenser’s typical moment is the glanc¬ 
ing of light off the armour of a faraway knight. Who or what is it? We 
never hear a name until the scene is nearly over. Spenser, as much as 
Donatello, understands the meaning of medieval armour as a vehicle of 
western pagan identity. Spenser is an Apollonian thing-maker in the 
tradition linking stony Pharaoh Chephren to modem metal cans and 

Personality in Spenser is armoured, an artifact of aggressive forging. 
The theme of The Faerie Queene is the same one I found in Michelan¬ 
gelo, a conflict between definitiveness and dissolution of self. In the 
Renaissance, sex has a dangerous freedom. That barbaric power con¬ 
signed to the medieval Hell now waits in every glade, returned to its old 
place in nature. The western eye, creator of the sharp boundaries of 
selfhood, is sucked into will-lessness by the lure of sensual beauty. To 
preserve its autonomy, the Spenserian eye suspends itself in voyeurism, 
a tactic of defense that turns into perversion. Judaism had avoided this 
dilemma by elevating the word and banishing the eye. But Christianity, 
assimilating pagan art, was divided against itself from the moment it 
left Palestine. Spenser’s profound study of the amoral dynamics of the 

The Faerie Queene 

I 73 

western eye makes The Faerie Queene the supreme work of Renais¬ 
sance literature until Hamlet , which uses Spenserian voyeurism in 
virtually every scene. 

The Apollonian line to which The Faerie Queene belongs began in 
Egypt and Greece and passes through Donatello, Botticelli, Michelan¬ 
gelo, Blake, and Shelley to the Pre-Raphaelite painters and Oscar 
Wilde. It then reappears in cinema, which was implicit in western art 
and thought from the start. The Faerie Queene makes cinema out of the 
west’s primary principle: to see is to know; to know is to control. The 
Spenserian eye cuts, wounds, rapes. Since Vasari, artists have been di¬ 
vided into draughtsmen and colorists, practitioners of Wolfflin’s paint¬ 
erly style. The argument flares in the nineteenth century, when Blake 
rejects chiaroscuro as mud and when rough-brushed Delacroix opposes 
clean-lined Ingres. Spenser uses the incising draughtsman’s pen. Direct 
contact with Botticelli was unnecessary, since the Apollonian style was 
latent in medieval armour, in which Spenser clothes so many charac¬ 
ters. Spenserian armour is western personality imagined as discrete and 
indissoluble, cohesive and luminous. 

The sex and glamour of the armour-infatuated Faerie Queene sepa¬ 
rate it from a more faithfully Protestant work like its descendant, Pil¬ 
grim's Progress (1678). Upstairs, downstairs: Bunyan’s kitchen Spenser 
returns allegory to its legible medieval form, as in the morality plays. 
Pilgrim's Progress makes a charmingly direct path between simple im¬ 
age and simple message, which the Bible allows us to decode. But in the 
tricky Faerie Queene , Protestant individualism has been usurped by a 
pagan aesthetic. In Spenser, as nowhere in Bunyan, we constantly 
contemplate the ritual visibility of fabricated personality, a Greco- 
Roman idea. Armour is the Spenserian language of moral beauty, sig¬ 
nifying Apollonian finitude and self-containment. 

Spenser’s questing knights, isolated against empty panoramas, replay 
Apollo’s hostility to nature. The west has always made Apollonian art 
objects out of arms of war (fig. 28). The bronze carapace of Homer’s 
heroes is a male exoskeleton, the hardness of western will, a theme to 
return in a discussion of American football in my next book. In Odys¬ 
seus’ Ithaca, weapons are kept on display in the banquet hall. In the 
Middle Ages, a shield hung on the wall, as a painting would be in the 
Renaissance, was a badge of clan identity. The heraldic crest is another 
Egyptian cartouche, a privileged sacred space. 

Western culture has always been obsessed with severe burnished 
surfaces. The elegant Corinthian Greek war helmet, for example, with 
its flat cheek-guards and keyhole eyes, is an eerie superself, smooth 

Spenser and Apollo 

l 74 

28. Homogeneous Tilting Armour, 
German, 1580. Maker: Anton 
Peffenhauser, Augsburg. 

as a staring skull (fig. 29). Eastern armour, in contrast, is squat, sin¬ 
uous, and bushy. Asian art is based on the female curve, not the rigid 
male line. Eastern armour uses organic shapes, while western armour 
insists on technological insulation from nature. The western soldier is a 
steely marching machine. The Japanese Samurai is bristly and rotund; 
his armour seems pregnant, overgrown by vegetation. He is half- 
camouflaged, relapsing into female nature, like The Faerie Queene 's 
leafy knight Artegall, who is in a spiritually unreconstructed condition. 

Compare the imperial tombs of Egypt and China. The Pharaohs’ 
mummiform granite sarcophagi or Tut’s fitted gold coffins are heavy 
and solid, fused from head to foot. But the gleaming jade burial suits of 
Han princes are faceted and stitched like fish scales. Western Apollo- 
nianism is ungiving, impermeable, adamantine. It is an aesthetic of 
closure. Donald Keene says Japanese sentences “trail off into thin 
smoke,” a vapor of hanging participles. 2 In other words, Japanese sen- 

The Faerie Queene 


29. Greek Helmet. Corinthian type, 
late seventh to early sixth centuries 
b.c. Border of wave pattern. 

tences avoid closure. Even the sword blade, in the west a harsh phallic 
totem, is given an interior by Japanese connoisseurs, who project poetic 
landscapes into its hundred folded layers. Western armour is separatist, 
dividing self from self and self from nature. Spenser’s armour is the 
symbol of Apollonian externality, of strife and solar wakefulness. It 
ensures permanent visibility, personae hardened against their own sex¬ 
ual impulses. In The Faerie Queene , nature lurks everywhere with her 
seductive dissolutions of surrender and repose. 

Arms and armour in The Faerie Queene symbolize male fortitude and 
self-assertion. We expect these qualities from heroes. But Spenser ex¬ 
tends them to heroines, in a way that speaks directly to our time. His 
armed Amazons, Belphoebe and Britomart, are among the most potent 
women in literature. Spenser removes the usual archetypal basis of 
female force, the daemonic, and imagines his heroines as Apollonian 
angels. This had not been done since Greek Artemis. Spenser creates 
the new Renaissance cult of married love. As C. S. Lewis observes, 
Spenser’s “romance of marriage” replaces the “romance of adultery” of 
medieval courtly love . 3 Before the Renaissance, poets sang of their 
mistresses but not of their wives. Marriage was a utilitarian affair, 
having nothing to do with art. Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, was urged to 
marry throughout her reign, to ensure a peaceful succession. The Faerie 
Queene moves toward marriage but never reaches it (the poem is a mere 
fragment of Spenser’s ambitious plan). The female knight Britomart is 
to wed Artegall and start the dynasty leading to Elizabeth and En¬ 
gland’s greatness. 

Spenser and Apollo 


Britomart’s maternal destiny introduces an image foreign to the Re¬ 
naissance as a whole: a benevolent Great Mother, whom Spenser calls 
Great Dame Nature. We saw how the androgynes of Italian art are 
usually beautiful boys and how dominatrixes, like Leonardo’s Mona 
Lisa or Michelangelo’s Night , tend to be sinister or sterile. In Shake¬ 
speare too, with his staggering range of sexual personae, references to 
creative chthonian females are rare. Spenser’s attraction to the Great 
Mother is anomalous. He exalts her, where Cellini, decorating Perseus' 
pedestal with Ephesian Artemis, defeats her. Britomart reverses Ar¬ 
temis’ evolution: she begins as the adolescent Apollonian androgyne 
and ends as the primeval mother goddess. Spenser’s Great Mother, like 
her ancient precursors, is always double-sexed. In Venus’ Temple, the 
idol, serpent-twined like Roman statues of Atargatis or Dea Syria, 
exhibits the genitalia of both sexes. She is “both male and female,” “sire 
and mother,” begetting and conceiving by herself alone (IV.x.41). 4 

Spenser’s recasting of sexual mythology is daring, original, and per¬ 
haps unsupportable. The grandest epic quest of The Faerie Queene is his 
own. He wants to cleanse the procreative of its daemonic taint. Spen¬ 
ser’s Renaissance ideal of marriage cooperates with genre in his two 
famous epithalamia. But now in epic, with its more aggressive sexual 
personae, nature is not so easily contained. The Faerie Queene tries to 
repair splits in Spenser’s own imagination. It tries to turn the foul cup of 
the Whore of Babylon into a Holy Grail. 

Spenser’s most militant instrument of Apollonian definition is chas¬ 
tity, a self-armouring of personality. St. Augustine calls continence 
“unity of self.” 5 Virtue in The Faerie Queene means holding to one’s 
visible shape. In the human realm, formlessness or wanton metamor¬ 
phosis is amoral. Only evil characters (Archimago, Duessa, Guyle, Pro¬ 
teus) change shape. The heroic Prince Arthur can transform other 
things but never alters himself. Hybrid beings (part dog, fox, dragon, 
hag) are always bad. This is the reason, I think, that Spenser was 
troubled by the five “Hermaphrodite stanzas,” which he mysteriously 
dropped from the poem after its first edition. Amoret and Sir Scuda- 
mour, embracing, melt into one another until they seem a Roman Her¬ 
maphrodite statue. Spenser may have cancelled these stanzas because 
they violate his own Apollonian laws, trespassing the boundaries of 
form. In The Faerie Queene, mutilation is horrific. Words like “mis¬ 
shapen” and “deformitee” recur. The human form is paradigmatic, as 
in the anatomical architecture of the House of Temperance (II.ix). Bel- 
phoebe and Britomart, personified chastity, express their radical auton¬ 
omy in a blaze of self-generated light, the same light that pours from the 

The Faerie Queene 


Olympian gods as patrons of aristocratic order. The body in Spenser is a 
social integer. Apollonian illumination and integrity of form are art, 
politics, and morality all in one. Clarity of eye is purity of being. 

The Elizabeth-inspired Amazons, Belphoebe and Britomart, are the 
greatest sexual personae of The Faerie Queene. They flood the verse 
with a strange golden light. St. Thomas Aquinas makes “brightness or 
clarity” a prime quality of beauty. 6 Eliade says of Vishnu, “Mystically 
perfect beings are radiant.” 7 Burckhardt remarks that blonde was the 
ideal hair color of the Italian Renaissance. But Spenserian blondeness 
is a moral, not a cosmetic principle. Belphoebe and Britomart’s heraldic 
blondeness is analogous to their upper-class hermaphroditism. Dorian 
and authoritarian Apollo, I said, is ice-blonde. Belphoebe’s Apollonian 
blondeness is a transparency, hard and clear. The whole Faerie Queene 
is a “world of glass,” a construct of visionary materialism (III.ii.19). 

Light seems to penetrate blonde forms, so they seem midway be¬ 
tween matter and spirit. St. Gregory the Great, seeing fair-haired Brit¬ 
ish boy slaves in Rome, exclaimed, “They are not Angles but angels” 
(Non Angli sed angeli). In body type, Belphoebe and Britomart are the 
Crystalline Aphrodite, like Botticelli’s Venus. All angels are ectomor¬ 
phic. Spenser’s female angels, suppressing the maternal silhouette, 
approach the sexually indeterminate. The blondeness of his heroines is 
a prism through which light is intensified and projected. The radiance 
of the Olympian gods as objets d’art is identical to the glamour of 
Hollywood publicity in which Kenneth Burke sees “a hierarchic mo¬ 
tive.” 8 Movie stars of the Thirties and Forties, photographed in halos of 
shimmering light, had Spenserian glamour. They were aristocrats of a 
dark era of economic chaos and war. The camera’s idealizing eye gave 
them Apollonian power and perfection. The Amazons of The Faerie 
Queene shed light because they too are produced by an instinct for 
hierarchy. This poem, like most English Renaissance literature, is in¬ 
spired by a reverence for social order. 

Spenser and Shakespeare star beautiful female androgynes in their 
galaxy of personae. Here the English Renaissance strongly departs 
from the Italian: there were willful educated women like Caterina 
Sforza and Isabella d’Este, but they were not the focus of Italian imagi¬ 
nation. Perusing the stunning Italian portraits crammed into museums 
and palazzi, one is struck by the disparity between male and female 
representation. Italian men and boys are vivacious, ravishing; but the 
women seem placid, stolid, even stupid. The feminine conventions of 
shaved eyebrows and bulbous forehead don’t help. The divergence is 
extreme in double facing portraits like Piero della Francesca’s of the 

, 7 8 

Spenser and Apollo 

Duke and Duchess of Urbino or Raphael’s of Angelo and Maddalena 
Doni: the men are fully developed personalities, while their wives seem 
static and bland. Not only could respectable women not pose at leisure, 
but there was the Plotina effect: a lady confines herself to one persona. 
Decorum means expressionlessness. 

Spenser and Shakespeare throw all this out the window. They love 
imperious, volatile women. England was governed by a charismatic 
spinster who boxed the ears of her nobles and bashed ale flagons into 
tabletops. Her chief minister Lord Burghley said the queen was “more 
than a man and (in truth) sometimes less than a woman.” Not until 
Mannerism do aggressive real-life women finally make it into Italian 
art. Bronzino, for example, captures the mannish profile of poetess 
Laura Battiferri, whom he calls, punning on her name, “all iron within, 
ice without.” As for England, appreciation of fierce females did not 
survive the Renaissance, thanks to the upsurge of Puritanism. Early 
eighteenth-century portraits of noblewomen are as frigid and formulaic 
as those of the Italian Renaissance. But Amazons were to stage a 
comeback in the Augustan salon, as we know from The Rape of the 

So the liberated woman is the symbol of the English Renaissance, as 
the beautiful boy is the symbol of the Italian. In The Faerie Queene , we 
see her in free movement. I speak, of course, of artistic projection and 
not of the life of real British women. But art is what transcends and 
survives. Of all truths, it is the finest. Belphoebe bursts into The Faerie 
Queene like a divine epiphany. Spenser gives her one of the most 
dazzling theatrical entrances in art. Narrative action stops dead, while 
ten long stanzas minutely describe her appearance. The Apollonian eye 
is locked in place. It is a privileged moment of hieratic stillness and 
silence, as if a frame of film were frozen before us. 

Belphoebe, a huntress and solitary forest-dweller, recalls Venus dis¬ 
guised as Diana in the Aeneid. She resembles Penthesilea, “Queene of 
Amazons.” She carries “a sharpe boar-spear” and a bow and quiver 
“stuft with steele-headed darts.” Her face is the “heavenly portrait” of a 
“bright Angel,” rose-red and lily-white. She has an ivory brow. Her eyes 
dart “fiery beames,” full of “dread Majestie,” that quell lust. Her long, 
loose yellow hair, “crisped like golden wire,” is lifted by the wind and 
flecked with falling flowers—which suggests Spenser had also seen 
copies of Botticelli’s Primavera or Birth of Venus or both. Belphoebe 
wears a pleated white silk tunic, sprinkled with golden ornaments like 
twinkling stars. Her skirt has a gold fringe. Her gilt buskins are deco- 

The Faerie Queene 


rated with gold, enamel, and jewels. Her legs are like “marble pillars” 
supporting “the temple of the Gods” (II.iii.21-31). 

Belphoebe seems like a work of sculpture embedded in the text. 
Spenser’s lavish description, far longer than anything in Boiardo, Ari¬ 
osto, or Tasso, has the stylization and high specificity of a Byzantine 
icon. Belphoebe is the Byzantine Elizabeth. But she also has a high 
classic symmetry and mass, a mathematical measure. With her white 
and gold Amazonian splendor, she is like the chryselephantine colossus 
of Athena in the Parthenon. Every detail and edge is deeply incised, 
because Spenserian personality must be forcibly carved out of obdurate 
nature and defended against the erosion and lassitude of fatigue or 
hedonism. The intricacies of Belphoebe’s golden hair and costume 
correspond to the categories and subsets of the great chain of being, 
ascending Apollonian order. Belphoebe’s hypervisibility is our own 
Apollonian consciousness, our aggressive pagan eye. She is a master¬ 
piece of western objectification, the sex object that leaps from the brain 
and repels all touch. 

Belphoebe appears and disappears, like a dream vision. Not till a full 
book later does Spenser disclose her birth and education. In Book Two, 
she is formal and abstract, a sudden manifestation of hierarchic power. 
With her grace, dignity, and arete , she may be a living illustration of the 
golden mean, the parable of Medina and her sisters in the prior canto. 
Belphoebe mediates between the extremes of art and nature, mas¬ 
culinity and femininity. Her name means “beautiful Diana.” She carries 
“deadly tooles,” her male weapons (II.iii.37). We usually see her caught 
up in bloodlust, fast on the red trail of fleeing prey. A woman of “Hero- 
ick mind,” she intimidates by her monomania, evasion of physical 
contact, and want of ordinary homely emotion. Discovering the injured 
Timias, she is touched for the first time by pity, “soft passion and 
unwonted smart” (III.v.55, 30). Even binding his wounds, she remains 
austere and remote. She is impenetrable, like the frosty, unknowable 
Garbo, in whom Roland Barthes sees an archetypal impersonality. 

Belphoebe’s chastity is a form of hierarchic sequestration. Proclus 
says, “The peculiarity of purity is to keep more excellent natures exempt 
from such as are subordinate.” 9 The Apollonian universe of domination 
and submission permits no emotional involvement. Cold and self- 
complete, the Apollonian androgyne is isolated behind a wall of silence 
or muteness. I find this narcissistic phenomenon in the Greek beautiful 
boy, Mann’s enigmatic Tadzio, and Melville’s stammering Billy Budd. 
Compare Belphoebe’s odd habit of dashing off in the middle of sen- 


Spenser and Apollo 

tences. Exaltation of the Apollonian mode in The Faerie Queene tends 
to make the virtuous characters somewhat slow-witted! Belphoebe, for 
example, is given to rather dull speeches. Eloquence belongs to evil 
characters, like seductively musical Despair (I.ix.58-47). Spenser in¬ 
vented the word “blatant,” meaning talk as noisy babbling. In the first 
canto, the pictorial Faerie Queene vomits its own words. Belphoebe’s 
later adventures with Timias show her naturalistically: she has a re¬ 
duced power, unlike the glory of her presence at first entrance. Spenser 
no longer shows Apollonian radiance emanating from her because, 
with the advent of pity into her heart, Belphoebe has forfeited her 
Amazonian autonomy. She descends to the realm of human hurts from 
the empty zone of her Olympian mind. 

Self-sequestered Belphoebe stands apart from the main action of The 
Faerie Queene. But her Apollonian peer, Britomart, is one of the central 
protagonists, with a whole book and more devoted to her. She is chastity 
with an enchanted spear, the poem’s only invincible knight. We first see 
her through the hostile eyes of Prince Arthur and Guyon, who think her 
a man. They see her as a mirror image of themselves, a warrior in full 
armour. During the ensuing skirmish, Spenser calls Britomart “he,” 
deceiving us as well. Then he reveals her sex to us in an aside and 
switches to “she” for the rest of the joust, which we now watch with 
quickened attention (Ill.i). He uses this transsexual trick of perspective 
twice more, when Britomart approaches Malbecco’s house and when 
she challenges and defeats Artegall (IH.ix.i 2; IV.iv.43). Spenser’s sleight 
of hand with grammatical gender, like his withholding of characters’ 
names, seems to be part of his prescient insight into the problematic 
nature of perception and identity. 

Trouncing the poem’s leading men, Britomart is a paragon of knight¬ 
ly prowess. Spenser summarizes her double sexual nature: “For she was 
full of amiable grace, / And manly terrour mixed therewithall” (III.i.46). 
She inspires both love and fear, appealing to the eye but subduing the 
spirit. This is a pagan synthesis. Like Belphoebe, Britomart throws off a 
dazzling angel light. We see her only when she disarms, a sudden 
revelation the more overwhelming. “Her golden locks,” falling to her 
heels, are “like sunny beames” bursting from a cloud, “golden gleames” 
shooting “azure streames” through the air (III.ix.20). Later, doffing her 
“glistring helmet,” she lets her golden hair fall “like a silken veile” 
about her body. It is like “the shining sky in summer’s night,” the day’s 
“scorching heat” now “crested all with lines of fiery light, / That it 
prodigious seemes in common people’s sight” (IV.i.13). Britomart is 
Apollonian supemature, moon and sun, cold and hot. She is Virgin and 

The Faerie Queene 


Lion, summertime constellations shot with sparkling meteor showers. 
People look up and marvel. But they are seeing Babylonian and not 
Christian gods. 

This kind of glittering feminine beauty in Spenser always has a 
masculine component. Tasso’s Amazon, the warrior Clorinda, never 
gives off the Apollonian light of The Faerie Queene , but there are 
precedents for the above passages in Ariosto. What Spenser adds to 
Ariosto is the quality of strangeness , of uncanny hierarchical excitation. 
Spenser senses the conceptualism and hieraticism in the aggressive 
western eye. He pushes vision into forbidden celestial space. Seraphic 
light unnerves and paralyzes the mortal viewer. Lascivious Malecasta, 
stealing upon sleeping Britomart, shrieks in fear. Her household finds 
her swooning at the feet of the wrathful knight: 

they saw the warlike Maid 
All in her snow-white smocke, with locks unbownd, 

Threatning the point of her avenging blade. 

Wherewith enrag’d she fiercely at them flew, 

And with her flaming sword about her layd. [III.i.63, 66] 

Britomart, affronted chastity, is a pillar of fire. She is the archangel at 
Eden’s gate, driving off sin from her holy sequestered self, a virgin 
circle. Belphoebe similarly recoils from the lustful advances of Brag- 
gadocchio, a Chaucerian lunk: “With that she swarving backe, her 
Javelin bright / Against him bent, and fiercely did menace” (II.iii.42). 
Spenser’s female androgynes of Apollonian radiance assert their self¬ 
preserving masculine will by explosive extrusions of phallic projectiles. 
These javelins, swords, and darts are contained in western light. They 
are solar beams, killing glances of our omnipotent eye. 

Britomart is motherless, like Athena, Atalanta, and Camilla. We hear 
only of a royal father and an old nurse, Glauce. There is a peculiarly 
physical scene between Britomart and the nurse, who revives her from 
love-sickness caused by a glimpse of her future betrothed in a crystal 
ball. Glauce rubs her charge all over the body and kisses her eyes and 
“alabaster brest” (III.ii.34, 42). These intimacies are maternal and then 
some. Spenser habitually complicates even innocent exchanges by 
some eroticizing adjective, usually describing inviting white flesh. Brit- 
omart’s relation with Glauce corresponds to Rosalind and Celia’s child¬ 
hood union in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, a proto-lesbianism, the 
prepubescent female matrix from which the sexually ambiguous hero¬ 
ine emerges into heterosexuality. 


Spenser and Apollo 

A lesbian suggestiveness of a different kind occurs in the prior canto 
in Castle Joyeous, where Malecasta, thinking Britomart a man, is con¬ 
sumed by desire. “Panting soft, and trembling every joint,” she prowls 
the corridors like Diderot’s obsessed lesbian mother superior and finally 
takes the masculine initiative by invading Britomart’s bed (i.6o). Mal¬ 
ecasta has only seen Britomart’s face through her open visor—a face we 
know to be quite feminine; hence her attraction to Britomart is subtly 
homoerotic. This is clear when one compares the episode to its source in 
Ariosto, where the Princess Fiordispina falls in love with the female 
warrior Bradamante. The tone is completely different. Fiordispina’s 
impossible plight has an affecting pathos; there is nothing decadent 
about it. Malecasta is a jaded sophisticate and chatelaine, not an inge¬ 
nue. Her sexual aggressiveness turns things kinky, a word that applies to 
Spenser but never to Ariosto. Kinky is a mental twist, top-spin on the 
eyeball. Malecasta’s “wanton eyes” that “roll too lightly” are hostile 
western perception on the loose (41). 

Though Britomart, feeling an intruder under the covers, leaps up out¬ 
raged, Spenser persists in putting her in compromising quasi-lesbian 
situations. Later she kisses, embraces, and sleeps with Amoret, Bel- 
phoebe’s feminine sister. Refusing to accept the False Florimell as her 
paramour, Britomart treats “her owne Amoret” as if she were actually 
Amoret’s male champion (IV.v.20). Indeed, before Amoret knows her 
identity, the distracted Britomart pursues her male impersonation be¬ 
yond the strictly necessary. Amoret becomes fearful of Britomart’s 
“doubtfull” behavior, a lovemaking and “lustfulnesse” that threaten 
“some excesse” (IV.i.7). 

These homosexual touches are part of Spenser’s grand plan for Brit¬ 
omart. Her character has extraordinary amplitude, covering the full 
range of human experience, from masculine achievement to maternal 
generation. Britomart is one of the sexually most complex women in 
literature. Like Belphoebe, she is a dazzling Apollonian androgyne, 
with the figure of an adolescent boy. But unlike Belphoebe, she will 
renounce athleticism and militancy for motherhood. Even her inspired 
name is one of the Cretan titles of the Great Mother (Britomartis) and 
not, as one first thinks, Spenser’s fusion of “British” and “martial.” One 
of Britomart’s missions, peculiar in a supposedly Christian poem, is her 
pilgrimage to the shrine of Isis. There she has “a wondrous vision” 
where she is robed and mitred as a male priest, then transformed into 
the pregnant goddess (V.vii). This sex change, paralleling the finale of 
As You Like It , is Britomart’s life pattern. She traverses the vast land- 

The Faerie Queene 


scape of sexual personae, progressing from solitary knightly quester to 
obedient wife and mother. 

Britomart’s encounters with her future mate are full of comic ironies. 
Artegall, to whom she must cede sovereignty in marriage, is repeatedly 
crushed by her in hand-to-hand combat. The Faerie Queene follows 
Artegall’s education and training. He must earn his wife. At the mo¬ 
ment, he falls dismally short of Britomart’s daydreams, where he is 
“wise, warlike, personable, curteous, and kind” (III.iv.5). He enters the 
poem in an untidy state of rude strength, his armour covered with moss 
and weeds. His steed has oak leaves for trappings. The motto on his 
ragged shield is “Salvagesse sans finesse ,” savagery without refinement 
(IV.iv.39). Artegall must be tempered from this extreme of brutish mas¬ 
culinity to become more androgynous. Spenser’s letter to Sir Walter 
Raleigh says of Prince Arthur that the poem will “fashion a gentleman 
or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.” Spenser praises Sir 
Calidore, hero of the Book of Courtesy, for his “gentlenesse of spright 
and manners mylde” (VI.i.2). Castiglione, we recall, gives the ideal 
Courtier “a special sweetness” and “grace.” The accomplished gentle¬ 
man has a feminine sensitivity to the social moment. Good manners are 
tentative and accommodating. The man passing from battlefield to 
court must be devirilized. 

In journeying toward his feminine pole, however, Artegall goes too 
far. Falling beneath the sway of Radigund, the Amazon queen, he 
becomes effeminate. With Radigund, that strange glittering light re¬ 
turns to the poem after an absence of a book and a half. It is the radiance 
of the Spenserian androgynous. Under her coat of mail, Radigund 
wears a purple silk tunic woven with silver and quilted on milk-white 
satin. She has painted buskins “basted with bends of gold.” Her scim¬ 
itar hangs from an embroidered belt, and her jewelled shield shines like 
the moon (V.v.2—3). The description deliberately recalls Belphoebe. 
But Radigund, “halfe like a man,” is a bully. In her solitary self- 
communing, Belphoebe does not affront the freedom of others. Radi¬ 
gund is a new Omphale, dressing captive knights in women’s clothes 
and making them sew and wash to earn their supper (V.iv.36, 31). 

Artegall makes two errors of judgment. First he promises, if defeated, 
to obey Radigund’s law (Britomart later refuses to agree to such terms). 
Second, after he knocks Radigund cold, he is undone by her beauty, like 
Achilles over Penthesilea, and rashly flings away his sword. Thus he 
emasculates himself: “So was he overcome, not overcome, / But to her 
yeelded of his owne accord” (V.v. 17). Radigund breaks Artegall’s sword 


Spenser and Apollo 

as a symbol of castration and hustles him into drag. “So hard it is to be 
a woman’s slave,” Spenser remarks, warning that all women except 
queens were born to obey men (V.v.23, 25). The great chain of being 
governs Spenser’s definition of sexual order, perfected in marriage. In 
the Book of Justice, Artegall offends that principle by upsetting the 
sexual balance of power. The Renaissance thought men’s political su¬ 
premacy over women was based in natural law. 

Britomart rides to the rescue. She must restore Artegall to manhood 
in order, paradoxically, to surrender to him. Chivalric sex roles are 
reversed. Britomart is the white knight and Artegall the damsel in 
distress. Catching sight of her intended in female dress, Britomart turns 
her head aside in embarrassment. Challenging Radigund to combat, 
she suffers a shock. For the first and only time in the poem, she loses. It 
takes one hermaphrodite to beat another. We see a contest between two 
womanly androgynies, as if to prove the truer or higher type. Britomart, 
who significantly has just come from Isis’ Church, where she surveyed 
her maternal future, recovers and kills the Amazon outright. She de¬ 
stroys Radigund’s revolutionary kingdom, repealing “the liberty of 
women” and restoring them to “men’s subjection” (V.vii.42). w 

As the end of As You Like It also demonstrates, the Renaissance, 
despite its humanistic expansion of the rights of women, could not 
permit Amazonism to flourish within the social world. But Spenser’s 
sexual personae play mischief with his official doctrine. Britomart has 
more force and common sense than her husband-to-be. She, not Ar¬ 
tegall, is Spenser’s epic hero. Britomart carries the blood of noble 
Trojan refugees, which will pass from her into the royal British line to 
raise the third Troy of Elizabethan London. Thus she is the real Aeneas 
of the poem. I elsewhere note her other sexual ambiguities. 10 

Britomart’s martial superiority is no modern freak. Spenser laments 
its present rarity. Long ago, in “Antique glory,” women fought battles 
and inspired poets to verse. Let great female deeds awake again, he 
proclaims (III.iv. 1—2). In The Faerie Queene , helpless, retiring feminin¬ 
ity is a spiritually deficient persona. Fleeing, ever-receding Florimell, 
brainwashed by the literary conventions of the love-game, is a carica¬ 
ture of hysterical vulnerability. Terrified by the sound of leaves, she runs 
even from admirers and rescuers. Spenser values courage and con¬ 
frontation. FlorimeH’s timidity and irrational fear are a defect of will. 
Belphoebe and Britomart’s arms signify readiness to engage in spiritual 
combat. For male and female alike in The Faerie Queene , the psycho¬ 
logical energy of aspiration and achievement is masculine. Life is rigor; 
no rest is possible. Seductive Phaedria tries to dissuade her suitor 

The Faerie Queene 


knights from conflict, but it is only by the clashing strife of contraries 
that Temperance or the temperate golden mean is achieved. The Faerie 
Queene' s androgyny theme belongs to this classical tradition of the 
coincidentia oppositorum or fruitful synthesis of opposites. 

Female arms and armour are the panoply of sex war. One of the 
cardinal events of The Faerie Queene is rape, which occurs in dozens of 
forms, some real, some fabricated. The maidens Una, Belphoebe, Flo- 
rimell, Amoret, Samient, and Serena are attacked once or repeatedly by 
rapists. Children born of rape include the sorcerer Merlin, the knights 
Satyrane and Marinell, and the chivalric triplets Triamond, Priamond, 
and Diamond. Males too fall victim to rape, kidnapped by the giantess 
Argante, her brother Ollyphant, and Jove himself. Even avarice is imag¬ 
ined as rape, the sacrilegious wounding of earth’s “quiet wombe” for 
tinselly silver and gold (Il.vii. 17). The rape cycle of The Faerie Queene is 
the most advanced rhetorical structure in Renaissance poetry, sur¬ 
passed only by Milton’s freezing of epic plot into oratory in Paradise 
Lost The masculine hurls itself at the feminine in an eternal circle of 
pursuit and flight. 

The rapes of The Faerie Queene come from Ovid’s Metamorphoses , 
the most imitated book of the Renaissance. But rape in Ovid, as in 
Hellenistic and Baroque art, is a bit of a jamboree, a romp of popping 
male muscles and bursting female globes. Spenser intellectualizes the 
Ovidian motif. Rape is his metaphor for biology, for the surges of 
aggression in nature. The sex war of The Faerie Queene is a Darwinian 
spectacle of nature red in tooth and claw, of the eaters and the eaten. 
Bestial Lust and his agents, like the hyena monster stalking Florimell, 
literally feed on women’s flesh, devouring their bodies. Woman is meat, 
and the penis, symbolized in oak logs brandished by Lust and Orgoglio, 
is a thing, a weapon. The theme culminates in Book Six, where Serena 
is stripped and appreciatively manhandled by slavering cannibals and 
where Pastorella, lusted after by brigands, is embraced and entangled 
in a heap of corpses, the gross triumph of matter. 

The rabid struggle for sexual dominance in The Faerie Queene is love 
debased to the will-to-power. Christian ethics are assailed on every side 
by pagan instinct. Spenser is the first to sense the identity of sex and 
power, the permeation of eroticism by aggression. Here he looks for¬ 
ward to Blake, Sade, Nietzsche, and Freud. Lust is the medium by 
which each sex tries to enslave the other. Spenser personifies it in 
numerous forms: as Lechery riding a goat in the procession of vices; as 
Sansloy, the lawless knight; as enemies of Temperance besieging the 
sense of touch; and as the grotesque predator Lust, all fangs, nose, and 

Spenser and Apollo 


pouchy ears, a walking phallic symbol. As a state into which the virtuous 
characters may fall, lust is allegorically projected as a series of felons, 
cads, and sybarites who use force, fraud, or magic to have their way. The 
Spenserian rapist is a savage, churl, or knight who is not “curteous” or 
“gentle,” who has not, in other words, undergone the feminizing refine- 
ment of social life. Due to his failure to incorporate a feminine compo¬ 
nent, he pursues fleeing, malleable femininity with a headlong ferocity 
that is a hunger for self-completion. His lust is a semantic error, a self¬ 
misinterpretation, a confession of psychic inadequacy. But on the other 
hand, weakness inspires attack. Vulnerability generates its own en- 
trapments, creating a maelstrom of voracity around itself. Nature ab¬ 
hors a vacuum. Into the spiritual emptiness of pure femininity in Spen¬ 
ser rush a storm of masculine forces. Florimell, for example, is a 
professional victim. In her mad flight, she is called a “Hynd,” the deer 
whom fierce Belphoebe pursues at her first entrance. Florimeirs nar¬ 
row escapes from disaster are sheer melodrama; they are not self-won 
or spiritually paid for. She remains novice and ward, living off the dole. 

In The Faerie Queene , the ability to fend off rape is a prerequisite of 
the ideal female psyche. We saw how spectacularly Belphoebe and 
Britomart turn their weapons against lechers male and female. Amo- 
ret’s inability to defend herself shows she is incomplete. Assaulted by 
Lust, she shrieks, in a striking display of lack of animal energy, too 
“feebly” to wake the sleeping Britomart (IV.vii.4). And Amoret is gro¬ 
tesquely defenseless against the sorcerer Busyrane, who binds her to a 
pillar, slashes open her naked breast, and extracts from “that wide 
orifice her trembling heart,” laying it in a silver basin (III.xii.20-21). 
This episode, one of the most decadent in The Faerie Queene , is a formal 
spectacle of eroticized masochism. The genital symbolism is lurid and 
unconcealed. Spenser intensifies the moral ambiguity by using a poetry 
so deliciously beautiful that the reader is attracted to and emotionally 
implicated in Busyrane’s sadism. Ivory, gold, silver, “skin all snowy 
cleene” dyed “sanguine red”; fainting tremors, despoiling hands. Amo¬ 
ret, due to her spiritual limitations, may have invoked this morbid scene 
of martyrdom as an imaginative projection. But the gravest seduction is 
of our own sensibilities. Spenser, making exquisite aestheticism out of 
torture and rape, arouses us through the aggressive pagan eye. Amoret’s 
“wide wound” is her passivity but our probing and delectation. Western 
sex as mental surgery. 

Feminine and unarmed, Florimell and Amoret are flagrant targets 
for attack. Sadism and masochism engender one another in dizzy os¬ 
cillation. Caught on the swing of the sexual dialectic, the rapist vainly 

The Faerie Queene 


strives to obliterate his opposite. The Faerie Queene's savage circular 
world of rape is transcended by the higher characters, who internally 
subsume the chastened extremes of masculine and feminine. Flori- 
mell’s unmixed femininity makes her unfit for quest. It is her im¬ 
poverished lack of sexual complexity that allows a knock-off copy of her 
to be so easily fabricated. The witch-hag makes a “snowy” False Flor- 
imell and animates it with an epicene, possibly homosexual evil spirit 
skilled in female impersonation (III.viii.8). Because of her psychologi¬ 
cally embryonic state, Florimell’s identity is quickly invaded and oc¬ 
cupied by a daemonic hermaphrodite. This too is the knife of Busyrane, 
the sensual self-wounding of femininity. Spenser’s naive rape victims 
turn up again in Coleridge’s Christabel , one of the nineteenth century’s 
most influential poems. And they are everywhere in that autoerotic 
sadist, Emily Dickinson. Neither of these far-reaching effects of Spen¬ 
serian sex crime has been noted before. 

I have been speaking of assaults of male on female. But some of The 
Faerie Queene's boldest sexual aggressors are the licentious femmes 
fatales: genitally deformed Duessa (a version of the Whore of Babylon), 
Acrasia, Phaedria, Malecasta, Hellenore. Manipulative and exploit¬ 
ative, they seek humiliating sexual victory over men. Their greatest 
power is in womblike closed spaces, in bedchambers, groves, and caves 
like the leafy grotto of Homer’s Calypso, where the male is captured, 
seduced, and infantilized. Spenser’s great word for such places is 
“bower,” both garden and burrow. Embowerment is one of The Faerie 
Queene' s primary processes, a psychological convolution of entrance- 
ment, turning the linearity of quest into the uroboros of solipsism. 

The Bower of Bliss, wrathfully destroyed by Sir Guyon, is the most 
lavishly depicted of these female zones, which express the invitation 
and yet archetypal danger of sex. At the gate, Excess, a “comely dame” 
in disordered clothes, crushes scrotal grape clusters (a Dionysiac sym¬ 
bol) into a vaginal cup of gold, the male squeezed dry for female plea¬ 
sure (Il.xii.55—56). At the damp heart of the dusky Bower lies Acrasia, 
hungrily hovering over the dozing knight Verdant, who sprawls ener¬ 
vated and depleted, his weapons abandoned and defaced. Acrasia is a 
Circean sorceress and vampire: she “through his humid eyes did sucke 
his spright” (73). This sultry postcoital scene is based on Botticelli’s 
Venus and Mars, whose long narrow design signifies the triumph of 
mother nature’s horizontals over the verticals of spiritual ascent (fig. 30). 

Spenser’s femmes fatales tempt their male victims and paramours 
away from the pursuit of chivalric honor into “lewd sloth”—languid 
indolence and passivity (III.v. 1) The Faerie Queene represents this moral 

Spenser and Apollo 


30. Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, 1485—86. 

degeneration as dissolution of Apollonian contour. Sinister fogs blanket 
the landscape, a Dionysian miasma. Lying down to rest in pretty glades, 
Spenser’s knights feel their strength flowing away. In The Faerie Queene, 
the hard Botticellian edge of heroic male will is constantly fighting off 
the blurring of female sfumato. Spenser is the anatomist of an economy 
of sex, of physiological laws of pressure and control, embodied in 
images of binding and loosing. The Bower of Bliss is the chthonian 
swamp, the matrix of liquid nature. It is inert and opaque, slippery with 
onanistic spillage. The bower is an erotic capsulization, a pocketing of 
the eye. Apollo’s chariot is mired in Dionysian deliquescence. Images 
shimmer in our self-generated heat. The Spenserian bower is our li¬ 
bidinous mother-bom body, matriarchal property in perpetuity. The rule 
of The Faerie Queene is: keep moving and stay out of the shade. The 
penalty is embowerment, sterile self-thwarting, a limbo of lush plea¬ 
sures but stultifying passivity. 

The Faerie Queene is the most extended and extensive meditation on 
sex in the history of poetry. It charts the entire erotic spectrum, a great 
chain of being rising from matter to spirit, from the coarsest lust to 
chastity and romantic idealism. The poem’s themes of sex and politics 
are parallel: the psyche, like society, must be disciplined by good gov¬ 
ernment. Spenser agrees with classical and Christian philosophers on 
the primacy of reason over animal appetite. He looks forward to the 
Romantic poets, however, in the way that he shows the sex impulse as 
innately daemonic and barbaric, breeding witches and sorcerers of evil 
allure. Like the Odyssey ; The Faerie Queene is a heroic epic in which the 
masculine must evade female traps or delays. But two millennia of ris¬ 
ing and falling urban culture intervene since Homer. Spenser ponders 
how love is affected by worldly manners, how it is embellished or 
distorted by the artificiality of courts. Hence sex in The Faerie Queene 

The Faerie Queene 


reaches extremes of decadent sophistication not present in literature 
since Roman satire and never in the genre of epic. Marriage is the social 
regulation and placement of sexual energies, which for Spenser other¬ 
wise fall back into the anarchy of nature, ruled by the will-to-power and 
survival of the fittest. Marriage is the sanctified link between nature and 
society. Sex in Spenser must always have a social goal. 

Spenser’s theory of sex is a continuum from the normative to the 
aberrant. Chastity and fruitful marriage occupy one pole, after which 
the modalities of eroticism darken toward the perverse and monstrous. 
First in blame is what we would call recreational sex, heterosexual 
impulses hedonistically squandered. I elsewhere enumerate incidences 
of other illicit practices, which make The Faerie Queene an encyclope¬ 
dic catalog of perversions, like Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis : 
not only rape and homosexuality but priapism, nymphomania, exhibi¬ 
tionism, incest, bestiality, necrophilia, fetishism, transvestism, and 
transsexualism. 11 Above all is a recurrent motif of sadomasochistic 
sexual bondage. Captivity and enslavement, chains and snares, love as a 
sickness or wound: Spenser diagnoses these Petrarchan stereotypes as 
themselves diseased. Literaiy convention led lovers to confuse sex with 
self-immolation. Love was corrupted by Freud’s death-instinct. 

Sexual bondage in The Faerie Queene belongs to the larger theme of 
politics. Hierarchy and ceremony, radiations of the great chain of being 
and master principles of Renaissance culture, are criminalized in the 
sexual realm. Bondage is a daemonic antimasque, the uncontrolled 
sexual fantasy of morally secessionist authoritarians. Another patholog¬ 
ical category is flight from sex, either sexual fear or frigidity, which 
Spenser incorporates in a theory of narcissism that is psychoanalytically 
pioneering. Dainty self-withholding turns into autoeroticism, a stag¬ 
nant psychic pool. Personality becomes a prison. On her throne in the 
House of Pride, Lucifera raptly gazes at herself in a hand-mirror, “And 
in her selfe-lov’d semblance tooke delight.” (I.iv. 10). In her rudderless 
boat, Phaedria eerily laughs and sings to herself, “Making sweet solace 
to her selfe alone” (ELvi.3). Narcissism is “idleness,” a big word in 
Spenser. In self-love there is no energy of duality and therefore no 
spiritual progression. Autoeroticism, self-abuse literally and figura¬ 
tively, inhibits the enlargement and multiplication of emotion in mar¬ 
riage and therefore the investment of psychic energy 7 in the public 
structures of history. 

Voyeurism or scopophilia is one of the most characteristic moods of 
The Faerie Queene. An observer is posted by chance or choice at the 
perimeter of a voluptuous sexual scene, to which he plays peeping Tom. 


Spenser and Apollo 

Voyeuristic elements are present in the episodes of Phedon and Phi¬ 
lemon, where a squire is made to watch a sexual charade defaming his 
bride (Il.iv.). They are rampant in the Bower of Bliss, where Cymochles 
peruses a bevy of half-naked damsels, ogling them through deceptively 
half-closed lids; where bathing lady wrestlers expose themselves to the 
distinctly interested Guyon; and where flimsily clad Acrasia fastens 
“her false eyes” on drowsy Verdant, a scene repeated in the tapestry of 
Venus and Adonis in Castle Joyous (II.v.32-34, xii.73; IH.i.34-37). At 
Malbecco’s banquet, Hellenore and Paridell arouse each other by bra¬ 
zen eye contact and a lewd sexual theater of spilled wine, a voyeurism to 
resurface in their host’s plight as a hidden spectator at the debauchment 
of his wife, who is pleasurably mounted by a satyr nine times in one 
night (Ul.ix, x). Sleeping Serena is inspected by a tribe of cannibals, who 
seat themselves like an audience and judiciously weigh the merits of 
each appetizing part of her body (VLviii). On Mount Acidale, Sir Cal- 
idore stumbles on the dazzling scene of a hundred naked maidens 
dancing in a ring, Spenser’s supreme symbol for the harmony of nature 
and art (VI.x). In the Cantos of Mutabilitie, Faunus is punished for 
witnessing Diana at her bath ( Cumulatively, these epi¬ 
sodes in Spenser surely inspired the voyeuristic spying of Milton’s Satan 
on Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a detail not in the Bible ( P.L . 
IV, IX). 

The voyeurism of The Faerie Queene, endangering the poem itself, 
arises from the problem of sensuous beauty, which can lead the soul 
toward good or evil. C. S. Lewis was the first to apply the term “skep- 
tophilia” (his spelling) to Spenser’s Bower of Bliss, but criticism did not 
follow it up. 12 G. Wilson Knight rightly calls the poem “perilously near 
decadence”: u The Faerie Queene is itself one vast Bower of Bliss.” 13 I 
would go even further: the poetically strongest and most fully realized 
material in The Faerie Queene is pornographic. Spenser, like Blake’s 
Milton, may be of the devil’s party without knowing it. In a paradox 
cherished by Sade and Baudelaire, the presence of moral law or taboo 
intensifies the pleasure of sexual transgression and the luxury of evil. A 
great poet always has profound ambivalences and obscurities of motiva¬ 
tion, which criticism has scarcely begun to study in this case. 

The Faerie Queene is didactic but also self-pleasuring. In the midst of 
dissipation and atrocity, we hear a voice saying “Ain’t it awful!” Scholar¬ 
ship’s major error, incredible in this century of the New Critical doctrine 
of persona, has been to identify that voice with the poet. The Faerie 
Queene is contrapuntal. There is an ethical voice and a wanton voice, 
dissolving the other into lust by its delicacy and splendor, its hypnotic 

The Faerie Queene 


appeals to the untamed pagan eye. Voyeurism is the relation of this poet 
to this poem. It is the relation of every reader to every novel, of every 
spectator to every painting, play, and film. It is present in our study of 
biography and history, and even in our conversations about others. 

Voyeurism is the amoral aesthetic of the aggressive western eye. It is 
the cloud of contemplation that enwraps us as sexual personae, trans¬ 
porting us unseen across space and time. Christianity, far from putting 
out the pagan eye, merely expanded its power. Christianity’s vast tracts 
of the forbidden are virgin territory for the pagan eye to penetrate and 
defile. The Faerie Queene is a massively original analysis of these ten¬ 
sions in western culture. Criticism assumes that what Spenser says is 
what he means. But a poet is not always master of his own poem, for 
imagination can overwhelm moral intention. This is what happens in 
Coleridge’s Christabel. But I think Spenser far more cunning and con¬ 
scious of his teasing ambiguities. His favorite erotic trope is half- 
revealed white female flesh, glimpsed through ripped or parted gar¬ 
ments. The Faerie Queene often becomes what it condemns, nowhere 
more overtly than in its voyeurism, in which both poet and reader are 
deeply implicated. 

The Faerie Queene's decadent aesthetics reflect the Apollonian hier- 
archism of the Renaissance court world. Spenserian pornography is 
always sexual spectacle, a ceremonial tableau or procession. Formality 
creates perversity. Before Amoret slashed by Busyrane, there is the 
suicide Amavia, whom Guyon finds still-conscious with a knife in her 
riven “white alabaster brest.” “Purple gore” stains her garments, the 
“grassy ground” and “cleane waves” of a bubbling fountain, and finally 
the cruelly playing hands of “a lovely babe.” Beside her is the corpse of 
the knight Mortdant, bloody but smiling and, according to the poem, 
still sexually irresistible (II.i.39-41). Proud Mirabella, having tor¬ 
mented her admirers and laughed at their sufferings and death, is now 
punished by being whipped along by Scorn, who laughs in turn at her 
cries (Vl.vii). Artegall finds a headless lady, murdered by her knight Sir 
Sanglier, who is now forced to cany her dead head as a penalty (V.i). 
The iron man, Talus, chops off and nails up the gold hands and silver 
feet of beautiful Munera or self-worshipping money (V.ii). As in Mi¬ 
chelangelo’s “Captives” and ignudi , allegory has gone to hell. 

Such combinations in Spenser o'f beauty, laughter, sex, torture, muti¬ 
lation, and death are^motionally startling and ethically problematic. I 
find but one precedent: Boccaccio’s tale of Nastagio degli Onesti in the 
Decameron. A haughty woman rejects and gloats over her suffering 
lover, who commits suicide. For eternity, they are condemned to pursuit 


Spenser and Apollo 

and flight. Whenever he catches her, he kills her. He slits her back, tears 
out her “hard, cold heart,” and feeds it and her entrails to dogs. Then 
she springs to life, and the chase resumes. Nastagio, courting his own 
proud maiden, lays a banquet in a pine grove, so that the guests and his 
callous beloved may witness “the massacre of the cruel lady.” 14 Bon 
appetit! Botticelli’s workshop painted this savage, salacious tale, pre¬ 
sumably to his design. A black knight on a black steed waves his rapier 
at a nude woman, who in weirdly conflated scenes runs through the 
forest and lies on her face, her back being sliced open. A second panel 
shows the festive banqueters witnessing the bloody capture, as the lady’s 
white buttock and thigh are seized at table height by toothy mastiffs. 
The Spenserian decadence in Boccaccio’s tale is produced by the cool¬ 
ness and casualness of the detached eye, which treats sex and violence 
like art. Eye and object are positioned precisely as in modern cinema. 

Spenserian cinema is ritualized sexual perception. We feel the poet’s 
own connoisseurship everywhere in The Faerie Queene. It is probably 
the source of the erotic overtones in Glauce’s bedroom massage of 
Britomart and in Princess Claribell’s bizarre reunion with her long-lost 
Pastorella, where mother jumps daughter and rips her bodice' open 
(VI.xii.19). Connoisseurship, as we will see in nineteenth-century aes¬ 
theticism and Decadence, is the dominance of the intellectualized eye. 
The Faerie Queene is like a stunt film substituting a satirical soundtrack 
for the real one. A sermonizing voice earnestly comments on disturbing 
or pornographic images. But the eye in Spenser ahvays wins. 

The Faerie Queene is pulled in two directions, one Protestant, one 
pagan. Spenser wants good to come out of noble action. But sexual 
personae have a will of their own. The spectral sex signs of western art 
are vaunting creatures of hostility and egotism. The Faerie Queene's 
harsh clangor of combat is our native music. Spenser’s contradictions 
are uneasiest in his nature theory. He glorifies woman, but her body is a 
morass in which action is lost. Spenser is poetry’s first master of dae¬ 
monic image. The ambivalent bower theme that he bequeathed to his 
successors would make English literature supreme. It makes all the 
difference, for example, between Rousseau and Wordsworth. Spenser 
asks of fertile nature, should we resist or yield to it? The Faerie Queene 
opposes the armoured to the embowered woman. Spenser’s myth of 
benevolent fertility ties him to Keats. But in his broodings upon the 
secrets of nature, paralleled in the Renaissance only by Leonardo, he is 
disquieted and indecisive. His Gardens of Adonis, a creative womb- 
world with female mount and odorous dripping boughs, are another 
male prison. 

The Faerie Queene 


Britomart’s shiny armour and Belphoebe’s Byzantine glitter are at¬ 
tempts to polish and perfect the eye and keep it free. Spenser longs for 
an Apollonian woman. To make everything visible: we saw that ambi¬ 
tion in homosexual Greek classicism. The long cinematic sightlines of 
The Faerie Queene create a clear, articulate pagan space. Spenser turns 
medieval allegory into pagan ostentation. Scheduled moral meanings 
barely survive this apotheosis of the pagan eye. Spenser’s pictorialism is 
a compulsive Apollonian thing-making. And the most glamourous of 
these made things is the female warrior, who combats fallen nature, 
where the vampire drains maleness and the rapist annihilates female¬ 
ness. Spenser’s aristocratic Amazons, Belphoebe and Britomart, re¬ 
nouncing dominance in the boudoir and masochistic vulnerability in 
the field, carry the western eye to Apollonian victory. 

Shakespeare and Dionysus 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 

Spenser’s initial heavy impact upon English literature 
was in the 1590s, just when Shakespeare was developing his style. 
Shakespeare’s two early long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of 
Lucrece (1592, 1593-94) are homages to Spenser. The first is about 
sensual embowerment in female nature, its legend of dominant god¬ 
dess and kidnapped pretty boy borrowed straight from The Faerie 
Queene. The second is a lurid account of a politically pivotal rape from 
early Roman history. Shakespeare slows down the sexual cinema of 
Spenser’s rape cycle to an arousing frame-by-frame inspection of the 
assailant’s invasion of bedroom, bed, and white body Spenser’s sophis¬ 
ticated amalgam of prurience and moralism is adroitly duplicated. But 
Shakespeare had to throw off Spenser in order to get on with his own 
creative mission. His struggle against Spenser produced, I would argue, 
the titanism of the greatest plays, in which Shakespeare pushes into 
new ground beyond Spenser’s reach. I see Titus Andronicus (1592-94), 
long thought Shakespeare’s weakest play, as a devastating parody of 
Spenser. It has usually been misread (though not by A. C. Hamilton) as 
slipshod bad taste. But this Roman drama of rape and mutilation turns 
the Spenserian rape cycle into slapstick comedy. It is hilariously, inten¬ 
tionally funny. The ravished Lavinia doggedly persists in waving her 
“stumps” about like a windmill. Like Wilde’s Apollonian The Impor¬ 
tance of Being Earnest, Titus Andronicus should be played by romping 
drag queens, so that its outrageous mannerisms clearly emerge. This 
play is Shakespeare’s taunting farewell to Spenser. He is about to 
launch his own original explorations of love and gender. In Titus An¬ 
dronicus Shakespeare tries to fix and reduce Spenser, in order to pin 
him down and get past him. Lavinia’s endlessly stressed amputated 


As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 


tongue and hands are Atalanta’s balls, blood-red herrings tossed along 
the racetrack of the Muses. 

Spenser is an iconicist, Shakespeare a dramaturge. Spenser is ruled 
by the eye, Shakespeare by the ear. Spenser is an Apollonian, present¬ 
ing his personae in a linear series of epiphanies, carved out by the Botti- 
cellian hard edge. He makes tableaux, episodic vignettes, so loosely 
connected by plot that no one can ever remember what happens when. I 
see The Faerie Queene’s processional technique of short dramatic tab¬ 
leaux of high-colored sexual personae repeated in D. H. Lawrence’s 
Women in Love , with its overt Apollonian-Dionysian theme. Shake¬ 
speare is a metamorphosist and therefore closer to Dionysus than to 
Apollo. He shows process, not objects. Everything is in flux—thought, 
language, identity, action. He enormously expands the inner life of his 
personae and sets them into the huge fateful rhythm which is his plot, 
an overwhelming force entering the play from beyond society. Shake¬ 
speare’s elemental energy comes from nature itself. I think this remark 
by G. Wilson Knight the most brilliant thing ever said about Shake¬ 
speare’s plays: “In such poetiy we are aware less of any surface than of a 
turbulent power, a heave and swell, frormdeeps beyond verbal defini¬ 
tion; and, as the thing progresses, a gathering of power, a ninth wave of 
passion, an increase in tempo and intensity.” 1 The sea, Dionysian liquid 
nature, is the master image in Shakespeare’s plays. It is the wave- 
motion within Shakespearean speech which transfixes the audience 
even when we don’t understand a word of it. 

Spenser’s medieval language is archaic, backward-looking. By re¬ 
versing contemporary changes in language, he means to halt the giddy 
changes in Renaissance personae. His Apollonian personalities are 
historically retrograde. Epic is always a genre of nostalgia. Spenser, like 
Vergil, turns to epic at a moment of sudden anarchic multiplication of 
sexual personae. We will see Blake similarly responding to the psycho¬ 
logical crisis which is Romanticism. Multiplicity of persona, random 
role-experimentation, is always evil in The Faerie Queene . Positive 
Spenserian hermaphroditism is never fluid and improvisational, as it is 
in Shakespeare, but rather formalized, frozen, and emblematic, as in 
Britomart’s phallic spear or the Isis idol’s “long white slender wand” 
(V.vii.7). Shakespeare responds to Spenser’s archaism with dynamic 
futurism. The sixteenth century transformed Middle English into mod¬ 
em English. Grammar was up for grabs. People made up vocabulary 
and syntax as they went along. Not until the eighteenth century would 
rules of English usage appear. Shakespearean language is a bizarre 
super-tongue, alien and plastic, twisting, turning, and forever escaping. 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

It is untranslatable, since it knocks Anglo-Saxon root words against 
Norman and Greco-Roman importations sweetly or harshly, kicking us 
up and down rhetorical levels with witty abruptness. No one in real life 
ever spoke like Shakespeare’s characters. His language does not “make 
sense,” especially in the greatest plays. Anywhere from a third to a half 
of every Shakespearean play, I conservatively estimate, will always re¬ 
main under an interpretative cloud. Unfortunately, this fact is obscured 
by the encrustations of footnotes in modem texts, which imply to the 
poor cowed student that if only he knew what the savants do, all would 
be clear as day. Every time I open Hamlet , I am stunned by its hostile 
virtuosity, its elusiveness and impenetrability. Shakespeare uses lan¬ 
guage to darken. He mesmerizes by disorienting us. He suspends the 
traditional compass-points of rhetoric, still quite firm in Marlowe, nor¬ 
mally regarded as Shakespeare’s main influence. Shakespeare’s words 
have “aura.” This he got from Spenser, not Marlowe. Spenser’s dae¬ 
monic imagery turns into turmoil and hallucination in Shakespeare. 
Shakespeare’s language hovers at the very threshold of dreaming. It is 
shaped by the irrational. Shakespearean characters are controlled by 
rather than controlling their speech. They are like Michelangelo’s 
Mannerist sculptures, restive under night visitations. Consciousness in 
Shakespeare is soaked in primal compulsion. 

Language and personae mirror £ach other in both Spenser and 
Shakespeare. The archaizing language of The Faerie Queene is analo¬ 
gous to the Apollonian unity of its armoured personalities. Belphoebe 
and Britomart have one line of thought, as they have one line of action. 
They are not besieged by fantasy or mood, by the rising torrent of 
imagination surging through Shakespeare’s major characters. The 
cool, tensionless consistency of identity of Spenser’s godly Una (“Accept 
therefore my simple selfe”; I.viii.27) appears in Shakespeare only in 
helpless maidens like Ophelia, Cordelia, and Desdemona, who are 
destroyed by their plays. In Antony and Cleopatra , the Una-like Octavia 
comes off as a party-pooper and stick-in-the-mud compared to Shake¬ 
speare’s loquacious firebrand heroine. Octavia’s reticence and feminine 
whispers affront the genre of drama, which is all voice. But in The Faerie 
Queene , we saw, epiphanic Apollonian silence rules. Language is trun¬ 
cated or abbreviated for virtue’s sake. In Spenser, action speaks louder 
than words. Significantly, the decadent Bower of Bliss is cacophonous, a 
confusion of “birds, voices, instruments, winds, waters” (II.xii.70). This 
resembles Plutarch’s description of the wheeling nature-metamorpho¬ 
ses of Dionysus. 

That proteanism is evil in The Faerie Queene accounts for Spenser’s 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 

1 97 

puzzling portrayal of Proteus as a cruel tyrant and rapist. 2 Shakespeare, 
on the other hand, is proteanism personified. Coleridge calls him “the 
one Proteus of the fire and the flood.” 3 Multiplicity of personae, afflict¬ 
ing Hamlet but magnifying Rosalind and Cleopatra, is a major princi¬ 
ple in his plays, just as multiplicity of language is his poetic style. Voice 
is so primary in Shakespeare that costumes and time-schemes may be 
radically altered, as they are in modem productions, without affecting 
the higher meanings of the drama. But strict authenticity of costume is 
crucial to Spenser’s iconistic personae. Put Belphoebe in a tennis dress 
or Regency chemise, and all is lost. Apollonian armature is not the 
rotating wheel of fashion. It is hard and eternal. In Spenser, I showed, 
chastity is integrity of form. But Shakespeare’s characters are forever 
changing their clothes, especially in the comedies. Shakespeare takes 
the inherited theme of mistaken identity, as old as Menander and 
Plautus, and turns it into a meditation on Renaissance role-playing. He 
is the first to reflect upon the fluid nature of modern gender and 

Accordingly, Shakespeare is impatient with objets d’art, unlike the 
eye-obsessed pictorialist, Spenser. We see this as early as Venus and 
Adonis , where Shakespeare’s goddess speaks of sullen Adonis as a 
“lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone, / Well-painted idol, image 
dull and dead, / Statue contenting but the eye alone” (211 — 13). Wher¬ 
ever art works appear in Shakespeare—Viola grieving like “Patience on 
a monument,” Octavia as “a statue rather than a breather,” Hermione 
as a statue brought to life—they are usually symptoms of some emo¬ 
tional lapse or deficiency, of the callous abandonment of good, usually 
by blameworthy males. Cold objectification is lofty in Spenser, but in 
Shakespeare it is an obstruction to the free flow of psychic energy. 
Shakespeare’s resculptured rapee, Lavinia, may be the ultimate Spen¬ 
serian mute. Shakespeare rejects Spenserian hieraticism. Stasis is a 
danger on stage, where it slows the propulsiveness of dramatic plot. 
Every slighting reference to the visual arts in Shakespeare is a pointed 
rebuke to Spenser. Spenserian aesthetics are cunningly evoked at odd 
moments, as in Macbeth’s gorgeous description of the murdered king, 
“his silver skin laced with his golden blood” (Il.iii.i 12). Shakespeare 
puts Spenser’s glittering Byzantine iconicism into a traitor’s mouth. The 
essence of Shakespeare is not the objet d’art but the metaphor. Meta¬ 
phors are the key to character, the imaginative center of every speech. 
They spill from line to line, abundant, florid, illogical. They are Shake¬ 
speare’s dream-vehicle of Dionysian metamorphosis. The teeming 
metaphors are the objects of the medieval great chain of being suddenly 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

unstacked and released into vitalistic free movement. Shakespeare’s 
metaphors, like his sexual personae, flicker through a rolling stream of 
development and process. Nothing in Shakespeare stays the same for 

If Spenser is a pictorialist, Shakespeare is an alchemist. In his treat¬ 
ment of sex and personality, Shakespeare is a shape-shifter and master 
of transformations. He returns dramatic impersonation to its ritual 
origins in the cult of Dionysus, where masks were magic. Shakespeare 
recognizes that western identity, in its long pagan line, is imperson¬ 
ation. Kenneth Burke calls role in drama “salvation via change or 
purification of identity (purification in either the moral or chemical 
sense).” 4 The pattern of chemical breakdown, remixture of elements, 
and composition of new personality is clear in King Lear , where the 
protagonist is set to the boil on a stormy heath. Alchemy, which began in 
Hellenistic Egypt, entered the Middle Ages through Arabic texts and 
remained influential throughout the Renaissance. Its esoteric symbol¬ 
ism was a matter of literate common knowledge down to the seven¬ 
teenth century, when science took over its terms and techniques. There 
is debate about how much alchemical lore survived the Renaissance 
and was transmitted to the founders of Romanticism. That Coleridge 
was influenced by German commentary on the subject seems certain. 

Alchemy, like astrology, has been stigmatized at its worst rather than 
remembered at its best. It was not just a mercenary scrabble for a 
formula to turn lead to gold. It was a philosophical quest for the creative 
secrets of nature. Mind and matter were linked, in the pagan way. 
Alchemy is pagan naturism. Titus Burckhardt says alchemy’s spiritual 
aim was “the achievement of ‘inward silver’ or ‘inward gold’—in their 
immutable purity and luminosity.” 5 Jung speaks of alchemy as not only 
“the mother of chemistry” but “the forerunner of our modem psychol¬ 
ogy of the unconscious.” 6 Jack Lindsay sees alchemy prefiguring all 
scientific and anthropological “concepts of development and evolu¬ 
tion.” 7 The alchemical process sought to transform the prima materia , 
or chaos of mutable substances, into the eternal and incorruptible 
“Philosopher’s Stone.” This perfected entity was depicted as an an¬ 
drogyne, a rebis (“double thing”). Both the primal matrix and the fin¬ 
ished product were hermaphroditic, because they contained all four 
basic elements, earth, water, air, and fire. The self-contained magnum 
opus of alchemical process was symbolized by the uroboros, the self- 
begetting, self-devouring serpent. The synthesis of contraries in the 
watery “bath” of the opus was a hierosgamos or coniunctio (“sacred 
marriage” or “union”), a “chymical wedding” of male and female. This 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 


pair appeared as brother and sister in incestuous intercourse. The 
terminology of incest is everywhere in alchemy, betraying its implicit 
pagan character. Romanticism’s incest themes may bear this ancient 

The alchemists gave the name “Mercurius” to an allegorical her¬ 
maphrodite constituting all or part of the process. Mercurius, the god 
and planet, is liquid mercury or quicksilver, the elixir of transforma¬ 
tions. Arthur Edward Waite says, “ Universal Mercury is the animating 
spirit diffused throughout the universe.” 8 Mercurius is my name for one 
of the most fascinating and restless western sexual personae. We earlier 
traced the idea of the “mercurial” to crafty, wing-footed Hermes. My 
Mercurius, first conceived by Shakespeare, is the androgynous spirit of 
impersonation, the living embodiment of multiplicity of persona. Mer¬ 
curius possesses verbal and therefore mental power. Shakespeare’s 
great Mercurius androgyne is the transvestite Rosalind and after her the 
male-willed Cleopatra. The main characteristic is an electric wit, daz¬ 
zling, triumphant, euphoric, combined with rapid alternations of per¬ 
sona. Lesser examples are Goethe’s Mignon, Jane Austen’s Emma, and 
Tolstoy’s Natasha. Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron’s tempestuous mistress, 
will be our real-life example of the negative or afflicted Mercurius. At 
their most stagy and manipulative, Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord 
in The Philadelphia Story and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone 
with the Wind are the riveting Mercurius. Above all is Patrick Dennis’ 
breezy Auntie Marne, lavish practitioner of multiple personae, whose 
cult status among male homosexuals is the unmistakable sign of her 
cross-sexual character. 

Shakespeare is the most prolific single contributor to that parade of 
sexual personae which is western art. The liberated woman, I said, is the 
symbol of the English Renaissance, as the beautiful boy is of the Italian. 
In Shakespeare, liberated woman speaks, irrepressibly. Wit, as Jacob 
Burckhardt suggests, is a concomitant of the new “free personality” of 
the Renaissance. 9 Western wit, culminating in Oscar Wilde, is aggres¬ 
sive and competitive. It is an aristocratic language of social maneuver¬ 
ing and sexual display. The English and the French jointly created this 
hard style, for which there are few parallels in the Far East, where 
cultivated humor tends to be mild and diffuse. The Faerie Queene's 
arms and armour turn into wit in Shakespeare’s Renaissance Amazons. 
Rosalind, the young heroine of As You Like It { 1599—1600), is one of the 
most original characters of Renaissance literature, capsulizing the era’s 
psychological changes. The play’s source is Thomas Lodge’s prose 
romance, Rosalynde orEuphues ’ Golden Legacy { 1590), which contains 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

most of the plot. But Shakespeare makes the story a fantasia upon 
western personality. He enlarges and complicates Rosalind's character 
by giving her wit, audacity, and masculine force. Rosalind is Shake¬ 
speare’s answer to Spenser’s Belphoebe and Britomart, whom he spins 
into verbal and psychological motion. Rosalind is kinetic rather than 
iconistic. She too is a virgin. Indeed, her exhilarating freshness depends 
on that virginity. But Shakespeare removes Amazonian virginity from 
its holy self-sequestration and puts it into social engagement. Rosalind, 
unlike the high-minded Belphoebe and Britomart, has fun. She in¬ 
habits newly reclaimed secular space. 

In her transvestite adventure, Rosalind seems to resemble Viola of 
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night , but temperamentally, the two women are 
completely unalike. In her authority over the other characters, Rosalind 
surpasses all of Shakespeare’s comic heroines. Productions of As You 
Like It rarely show this. Intrepid Rosalind is usually reduced to Viola, 
and both parts are marred by summer-camp pastoral sentimentality. 
Rosalind’s whole meaning is lyricism of personality without sentimen¬ 
tality. These roles, written for boy actors, have ambiguities of tone which 
modem actresses suppress. The androgynous Rosalind is prettified and 
demasculinized. Shakespeare’s Portia is momentarily transvestite in 
The Merchant of Venice, where she wears a lawyer’s robe for one act. But 
Portia’s is not a complete sexual persona; that is, the play’s other charac¬ 
ters do not respond to him/her erotically. Rosalind and Viola are sexual 
instigators, the cause of irksome romantic errors. In many tales avail¬ 
able to Shakespeare, a disguised woman inspires another woman’s 
unhappy love. Most such stories were Italian, influenced by classical 
models, like Ovid’s Iphis. The Italian tales, like their English prose 
counterparts, imitate the droll Ovidian manner of sexual innuendo. As 
You Like It and Twelfth Night depart from their sources in avoiding 
bedchamber intrigue. Shakespeare is interested in psychology, not por¬ 

Both Rosalind and Viola adopt male clothing in crisis, but Viola’s 
predicament is grimmer. She is orphaned and shipwrecked. Rosalind, 
on the other hand, banished by her usurper uncle, elects a male persona 
as whim and escapade. Both heroines choose sexually ambiguous alter 
egos. Viola is Cesario, a eunuch, and Rosalind Ganymede (as in Lodge), 
the beautiful boy kidnapped by Zeus. Rosalind is brasher than Viola 
from the start, arming herself with swashbuckling cutlass and boar- 
spear. Viola, with her frail court rapier, makes a girlish and delicate boy 
at best. She is timid and easily terrorized. Rosalind relishes trouble and 
even creates it, as in her malicious meddling in the Sylvius-Phebe 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 


romance. When Olivia falls in love with her, Viola feels compassion 
toward this victim of her sexual illusion. But Rosalind is incapable of 
compassion where her own direct interest is not at stake. She can be 
hard, disdainful. Rosalind’s lack of conventional feminine tenderness is 
part of her lofty power as a sexual persona. There is intimidation in her, 
uncaught by modem productions. Unlike Viola, Rosalind acts and con¬ 
spires and laughs at the consequences. 

Twelfth Night's plot resolution depends on the mechanistic device of 
twins. Viola surrenders her uncomfortable male role to a convenient 
brother, who uncomplainingly steps into her place in Olivia’s affections. 
As You Like It, however, is centered on the more ambiguous Rosalind, 
who subsumes both twins within her nature. Viola is melancholy, reces¬ 
sive, but Rosalind is exuberant and egotistical, with a flamboyant in¬ 
stinct for center stage. The difference is clearest at play’s end. Viola falls 
into long silence, keeping the joy of reunion to herself. Her decorous 
self-removal is the opposite of Rosalind’s lordly capture of the finale of 
As You Like It Dominating her play better than her father has domi¬ 
nated his own realm, Rosalind asserts her innate aristocratic authority. 

Shakespeare rings his double-sexed heroines with rippling circles of 
sexual ambiguity. Olivia’s infatuation with Viola/Cesario is as suspi¬ 
cious as that of Spenser’s Malecasta with Britomart, for the disguised 
Viola strikes everyone as feminine in voice and appearance. Twelfth 
Night begins with Duke Orsino savoring his sexual submission to the 
indifferent Olivia, whom he describes with outmoded Petrarchan meta¬ 
phors of coldness and cruelty. Since the narcissistic Orsino is of dubious 
masculinity, Viola’s ardor for him is problematic. In both Twelfth Night 
and As You Like It, the transvestite heroines fall for men far inferior to 
them. Even feminine Viola has sexual peculiarities. L. G. Salingar says 
of Viola and her precursors in the play’s Roman and Italian sources, she 
is “the only one to fall in love after assuming her disguise.” 10 So Viola 
falls in love not as a woman but as an androgyne. That she senses and 
esteems Orsino’s half-feminine state is suggested in a covert confession 
of love where she casts him fleetingly as a woman (II.iv. 23-28). Convey¬ 
ing Orsino’s masochistic endearments to the arrogant Olivia, Viola is an 
androgyne bearing a hermaphroditic message from one androgyne to 
another. Violas transports Orsino’s residual maleness before Olivia, 
where it radiates as an amatory promise seeming to come from Viola 
herself. Thus Viola’s official mission further masculinizes her. Richard 
Bemheimer speaks of personality as a vehicle of representation by 
diplomats and attorneys: in “the fascination of his presence,’ deputy 
may eclipse employer. 11 The fetching Viola is a conflation of sexual 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

representations. She represents Orsino but also, as Cesario, she repre¬ 
sents a male. Twelfth Night relativizes gender and identity by this 
masque-like succession of representations. The principal characters 
become androgynous echoes of one another. 

Like his counterpart in Twelfth Night, the male lead of As You Like It 
has severe dramatic shortcomings. Orlando, with whom Rosalind in¬ 
stantly falls in love, is adolescent-looking, barely bearded. Shakespeare 
undercuts his athletic prowess by making him the butt of constant jokes. 
The slow-witted Orlando is an unimpressive exponent of his sex in a 
play ruled by a vigorous heroine. Bertrand Evans calls him “only a 
sturdy booby.” 12 Like Orsino, Orlando is more manipulated than ma¬ 
nipulating. There may be a homoerotic element in his prompt consent 
to Rosalind/Ganymede’s transsexual game. In As You Like It, Shake¬ 
speare reduces the Renaissance prestige of male authority to maximize 
his heroine’s princely potency. Rosalind is intellectually and emotion¬ 
ally superior, sweeping all the characters into her sexual orbit. There is 
a lesbian suggestiveness in Phebe’s infatuation with the disguised Rosa¬ 
lind, whose prettiness she dwells on and savors (EII.v.i 13—23). Rosalind 
as a boy is, in Oliver’s words, “fair, of female favor” (IV.iii.86-87). Her 
maleness is glamourously half-female. 

The childhood liaison of Rosalind and Celia is also homoerotic. 
Shakespeare puts the girls into emotional alignment from the first 
moment Rosalind is mentioned and before she has even appeared. 
“Never two ladies loved as they do”; they have been “coupled and 
inseparable,” even sleeping together (Li. 109, iii.71—74). This amo¬ 
rously exclusive friendship functions in the first act as a structural 
counterpoise to the adult marriages of the last act, which ends in a 
vision of the wedding god. In an essay on the use of “you” and “thou” in 
As You Like It, Angus McIntosh remarks that “you” often carries “an 
overtone of disgust and annoyance.” After they encounter Orlando in 
the Forest of Arden, Celia, with “a note of huffiness,” begins to “you” 
Rosalind, indicating “the intrusion of Orlando into the cosiness of their 
hitherto undisturbed relationship.” 13 I find evidence of Celia’s jealousy 
even in the first act, when Rosalind hangs back to compliment Orlando 
and Celia says sharply, “Will you go, coz?” (I.ii.245). In the forest, 
Rosalind tries to get Celia to play the priest and marry her to the duped 
Orlando. “I cannot say the words,” Celia replies (TV.i. 121). She must be 
prodded three times before she can bring herself to give away the bride. 
That Shakespeare intends this subtext of sexual tension seems proved 
by the fact that in his source in Lodge it is the Celia character who 
merrily invents and urges on the sham wedding ceremony. 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 

20 $ 

Because of the premodern prestige of virginity, the union of Rosalind 
and Celia is surely emotional and not overtly sexual. Their intimacy is 
that female matrix I found in Britomart’s bond to her nurse. In , 4 s You 
Like It the matrix is an early stage of primary narcissism from which 
emerge the adult heterosexual commitments of the finale. Midway 
through the play, Rosalind exclaims, “But what talk we of fathers when 
there is such a man as Orlando?” (IILiv.35-36). Family and childhood 
alliances must yield to the new world of marriage. This is a characteris¬ 
tic English Renaissance movement: exogamy reinforces the social 
structure. Rosalind undergoes a process of increasing sexual differen¬ 
tiation. She splits from Celia by psychic mitosis. Their friendship is an 
all-in-all of gender, a solace for that motherlessness which Shakespeare 
curiously imposes on his maidens, leaving them defenseless in Hamlet 
and Othello. At the end of As You Like It , Rosalind and Celia sacrifice 
their relationship to take up the fixed sex roles of marriage. A choice is 
made, not necessarily inevitable. Hugh Richmond was, to my knowl¬ 
edge, the first critic to freely admit Rosalind’s “capacity for bisex¬ 
uality.” 14 Unlike Viola, Rosalind is borderline. She could go either way. 
One of the unnoticed themes of As You Like It is Rosalind’s temptation 
toward her outlaw male extreme and her overcoming of it to enter the 
larger social order. She is distinctly flirtatious in her prank with Phebe. 
Rosalind as Ganymede pretends to be a rakish lady-killer and, at her 
assumption of that sexual persona, actually becomes one. A superb 
language of arrogant command suddenly flows from her (III.v.35ff.). 
She is all sex and power. It is a complex psychological response to erotic 
opportunity, which she may or may not consciously recognize. In the 
scene in Spenser where she romances the dismayed Amoret, Brit¬ 
omart’s actions are divorced from her thoughts, which are on her future 
husband. So Spenser and Shakespeare prefigure the modem theory of 
the unconscious, which Freud said was invented by the Romantic poets. 
Britomart and Rosalind drift into an involuntary realm of lesbian court¬ 
ship. Male disguise elicits wayward impulses from the socially re¬ 
pressed side of their sexual nature. 

Are there any fixed coordinates for masculinity and femininity in 
Shakespeare’s transvestite comedies? Commentary on sex-differences 
can be fatuous, as in Orsino’s pontifications. Rosalind’s maxims on the 
sexes are usually satirical. In these plays, clothes make the man. By 
fixing the social persona, costume transforms thought, behavior, and 
gender. The one distinction between male and female seems to be 
combat ability. Viola is afraid to duel, and Rosalind faints at the sight of 
blood. Viola’s twin, Sebastian, on the other hand, is hot-tempered and 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

slaps people around. So Shakespeare gives men a physical genius that 
will out. Aside from this, Shakespeare seems to view masculinity and 
femininity as masks to put on and take off. He makes remarkably few 
allusions to sexual anatomy here: in the two plays I find one explicit 
remark and two or three puns. Viola, quailing at a duel, cries, “A little 
thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man” (III.iv.315- 
15). Man minus “little thing” equals woman. Rosalind’s resolve to “suit 
me all points like a man” hints at the obvious qualification that one 
male point isn’t ordinarily available to army supply (I.iii.i 14). A clown 
parodies Orlando’s love verse: “He that sweetest rose will find / Must 
find love’s prick, and Rosalind” (Ill.ii.i 11 — 12) To consummate his love 
for Rosalind, the moping Orlando must recover his manly autonomy. 
Like Artegall in drag, he must straighten up and take charge. Second, 
Rosalind as rose is both flower and thorn. Disguised as an armed male, 
she has dual sexual attributes, the phallic “love’s prick” as well as the 
female genital “rose.” One expects more bawdiness in cross-dressing 
Renaissance imbroglios. In a source of Twelfth Night , Bamabe Rich’s 
Of Apolonius and Silla (1581), Silvio, Viola’s precursor, reveals her sex 
at the end by “loosing his garments down to his stomach,” showing “his 
breasts and pretty teats.” An arresting moment in boudoir reading, ill fit 
for the stage! Shakespeare’s treatment of sexual ambiguity is remark¬ 
ably chaste. 

Shakespeare’s characters often fail to read the correct sex of their 
colleagues or even to recognize their own lovers onstage. The motif of 
twins mistaken for one another comes from Plautus and Terence, who 
took it from Greek New Comedy. But in classical drama, the twins are 
the same sex. The Renaissance, with its attraction for the androgynous, 
altered the theme to opposite-sex twins. As if sparked by the Zeitgeist, 
Shakespeare managed to father boy-and-girl twins. The use of virtuoso 
boy actors in all female roles conditioned Elizabethan playgoers to a 
suspension of sexual disbelief. The textual ambiguities of the trans¬ 
vestite comedies would be heightened by the presence of boys in the 
lead roles. The epilogue to As You Like It, which some think not by 
Shakespeare, demands audience recognition of the theatrical transsex¬ 
ualism. The actor playing Rosalind comes forward in female dress and 
addresses the audience: “If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you 
as had beards that pleased me.” A touch of male homosexual coquetry. 
At the end of performance, modern female impersonators similarly step 
out from the dramatic frame, revealing their real sex by tearing off wig 
and brassiere or emerging in tuxedo. Male portrayal of female roles in 
Elizabethan theater was inherently more homoerotic than the same 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 20j 

custom in Greece or Japan. Greek actors wore wooden masks; Japanese 
Kabuki employs heavy schematic makeup. Greek and Japanese actors 
could be any age. But Elizabethan theater used beardless boys, proba¬ 
bly with wigs and some makeup. But there were no masks. A boy had to 
be facially feminine enough to pass as a woman. The erotic piquancy 
must surely have led to claques of groupies, like those dogging the 
castrati of Italian opera. 

Earlier, I spoke of the androgynous beauty of adolescent boys and the 
religious purity of their singing voices. The boy-angel inhabiting the 
stage Rosalind added his own hermaphroditism to an already sexually 
complex role. As You Like It and Twelfth Night played by boys would be 
shimmering spectacles of the mystery of gender. The quality of specta¬ 
cle is evident in the last act of Twelfth Night , where the twins protract 
the traditional recognition scene to hypnotic length, a technique of 
cinematic slow motion I found in Shakespeare’s Rape ofLucrece . Lon¬ 
don’s National Theatre attempted an all-male production of^ 4 s You Like 
It in 1967, the costumes Sixties mod. The director sought “an atmo¬ 
sphere of spiritual purity.” 15 The episode where Rosalind as Ganymede 
induces Orlando to mock-woo her would specially benefit from such 
idealizing treatment, for it is a dazzling series of impersonations: we see 
a boy playing a girl playing a boy playing a girl. A reviewer said this 
production was “as simple, stylised and, in fact, as cold as a Noh play.” 
Still, these actors were young adults, not boys. Roger Baker claims boys 
as Rosalind and Viola would be “really unnerving”: “Boys can act with a 
natural gravity and grace.” 16 Transvestite boys, we saw, led the Greek 
sacred procession of the Dionysian Oschophoria. Their unmasked pres¬ 
ence on the Elizabethan stage reproduced the archaic ritualism and 
cultism of early drama. 

Like Michelangelo’s poetry, Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to 
two love-objects, a baffling forceful woman and a beautiful boy. The 
unidentified fair youth was evidently highly androgynous in appear¬ 
ance. Shakespeare calls him “angel,” “sweet boy,” “beauteous and 
lovely youth” (144, 108, 54). Most blatant is Sonnet 20, w f here Shake¬ 
speare calls the youth his “master mistress” and says he has “a woman’s 
face” and “a woman’s gentle heart.” Meaning him to be a woman, Na¬ 
ture “fell a-doting” and mistakenly added a penis. This is like Phae- 
drus’ drunken Prometheus getting human genitals wrong. Sonnet 20 
anticipates modern hormonal theory, where a fetus with male genitalia 
may retain female brain chemistry, producing an inner conviction of 
womanhood and a longing to change sex. The youth of Sonnet 20 is a 
hermaphrodite, facially and emotionally female but with the sexual 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

superfluity of a penis—from which Shakespeare explicitly abstains. I 
suspect Shakespeare, like Michelangelo, was a Greek homosexual ide¬ 
alist who did not necessarily seek physical relations with men. G. Wil¬ 
son Knight says Shakespeare’s sonnets express “the recognition in his 
adored boy of a bisexual strength-with-grace” and identifies this view 
with Plato’s, calling it “the seraphic intuition.” Knight writes brilliantly 
about erotic idealism, which transforms libidinal energy into aesthetic 
vision, “a flooded consciousness”: “You must have a maximum of ar¬ 
dour with a minimum of possible accomplishment, so that desire is 
forced into eye and mind to create.” 17 

The beautiful boy belongs to the sonnets and must remain there. He 
cannot enter the plays. Rosalind is the beautiful boy reimagined in 
social terms. References to homosexuality are rare in Shakespeare’s 
plays. There may be homosexual overtones to Iago’s behavior in Othello 
and Leontes’ in The Winter’s Tale or to Antonio’s devotion to Sebastian 
in Twelfth Night and Patroclus’ to Achilles in Troilus and Cressida. But 
Shakespeare never dwells on homosexuality or constructs a play or 
major character around it like his contemporary Marlowe, who opens 
Dido , Queen of Carthage with Jupiter “dandling Ganymede upon his 
knee” and Edward the Second with the king’s male lover reading a 
mash note in the street. That play ends with the anal execution of the 
homosexual king with a red-hot poker. 

I see in Shakespeare a segregation by genre, which diverts homosex¬ 
uality into lyric and keeps it out of drama. I spoke of the Greek-invented 
beautiful boy as an Apollonian androgyne, silent and solipsistic. He is 
an objet d’art, brought into being by the admirer’s reverent eye. Silence 
is a threat to drama, which thrives by voice. Northrop Frye speaks of 
“the self-enclosed world of the unproductive and narcissistic beautiful 
youth of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a ‘liquid prisoner pent in walls of 
glass’.” 18 Fiye is using an alchemical image from Sonnet 5, where 
summer flowers are distilled into an alembic of perfume, like love and 
beauty transformed into art. The beautiful boy of the sonnets is asocial, 
self-absorbed. Shakespeare exhorts him to marry and beget heirs lest 
his patrician line end (Sonnets 1-17). Ironically, as I see it, if the youth 
were to make the social commitment of marriage, he would imme¬ 
diately lose his glamourous narcissistic beauty, which is produced by his 
removal from time and community. I have stressed that the Apollonian 
mode is harsh, absolutist, and separatist. Apollonian beings are incapa¬ 
ble of Dionysian participation: they cannot “take part,” since Apollo- 
nianism is coldly unitary, indivisible. The transvestite Rosalind inherits 
the marriage obligation of the fair youth, whose refusal of social inte- 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 


gration confines him to the sonnets. A beautiful boy in the plays would 
seem shallow and small. In Shakespeare’s drama, the only Ganymede is 
a woman. In Rosalind, the beautiful boy makes the choice for others 
rather than self. 

Shakespeare’s reflections upon androgynous personae were inspired 
by the Renaissance ferment in sex roles, which hit England later than 
Italy. The distance between these national phases of the Renaissance is 
illustrated by the fact that Shakespeare and Marlowe were bom the 
same year Michelangelo died at age eighty-nine. Puritan preachers of 
the Elizabethan and Jacobean period inveighed against effeminate men 
and masculine women wearing men’s clothes. Thus Shakespeare’s 
transvestite comedies address a public issue and take a liberal position 
on it. Unlike Botticelli, who allowed Savonarola to destroy his pagan 
style, Shakespeare never yielded to Puritan pressure. In fact there is a 
turn toward decadence rather than away from it in his Jacobean plays. 
Shakespeare continued to believe in sexual personae as a mode of self¬ 
definition. This theme is treated in different ways in his two principal 
genres. His sonnets circulated in manuscript among an aristocratic 
coterie of Apollonian exclusiveness. But the plays were for the mixed 
social classes of the Globe Theatre, the democratic “Many” whom 
Plutarch identifies with Dionysus. Hence the psychic metamorphoses 
of Shakespeare’s androgynes were in analogy to the rowdy pluralism of 
his audience. 

That boy actors played girls is consistent with As You Like It's claim 
that boys and women are emotionally alike. Rosalind as Ganymede 
claims she cured a man of love by pretending to be his beloved: “At 
which time would I, being but a moonish youth, grieve, be effeminate, 
changeable, longing and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, in¬ 
constant, full of tears, full of smiles; for every passion something and for 
no passion truly anything, as boys and women are for the most part 
cattle of this color” (HI.ii.400--o6). There are intimations here of the 
charming vexations of pederasty. Vergil’s Mercury says, “Woman is 
forever various and changeable” (Aen. IV.569—70). Verdi’s duke agrees: 
“La donna e mobile.” Woman is mobile, changeable, fickle. Boys are 
moonish, as Rosalind puts it, because their mercurial inconstancy of 
mind resembles the ever-altering phases of the feminine moon, ruler of 
women’s lives. Shakespeare is speaking of adolescents, more proof that 
Van den Berg is wrong to say adolescence was never noticed and there¬ 
fore did not exist before the Enlightenment. Rosalind’s speech is a 
catalog of rapid shifts of persona, that giddy free movement among 
mood-states which I identify with the fun-loving but deceitful Hermes/ 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

Mercury. Are boys and women volatile by hormonal alchemy? Some 
male artists and writers have the nervous sensibility and delicate trem¬ 
bling fingers of women. Sensitivity begins in the body, which mind and 
vocation follow. 

Shakespeare elsewhere broadens his model of androgynous volatility 
to include special men or men in special situations. ‘‘The lunatic, the 
lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact”: artists and lovers 
are like lunatics, literally moon-men {Midsummer V.i.7-8). To love “is 
to be all made of fantasy.” The true lover is “unstaid and skittish in all 
motions” save the beloved’s image. The lover should wear “changeable 
taffeta,” for his mind is “a very opal” {AYLI V.ii.93; Twelfth Il.iv.r 7—20, 
73-75). Love dematerializes masculinity. Things are glimmering, wa¬ 
vering, liquefied. Art and love dissolve social habit and form, a Diony¬ 
sian fluidity. Shakespeare’s clowns also inhabit a declasse world of 
androgynous freedom. The medieval fool or jester had licensed access 
to satiric commentary and multiple personae. In King Lear Shakespeare 
gives the asexual fool Zen-like maxims of ultimate truth, toward which 
the pompous king makes his painful way. In Romeo and Juliet the jester 
role is played by the ill-starred nobleman Mercutio, named for his 
unruly mercurial temperament. His speech is a mad rush of images, 
metaphors, puns. Woman, boy, lunatic, lover, poet, fool: Shakespeare 
unites them emotionally and psychologically. They share the same 
fantastical quickness and variability. They are in moonlike psychic flux, 
which becomes manic-depressive instability in the frantic Mercutio. As 
a poet, Shakespeare belongs to this invisible fraternity of mixed sex. 
Inwardly, he too is a mercurial androgyne. Sonnet 29 charts one of his 
crushing mood-swings—low, lower, then up and away with the lark of 

Rosalind, the alchemical Mercurius, symbolizes comic mastery of 
multiple personae. Viola and Rosalind discipline their feelings, while 
the minor characters are full of excess and self-indulgence. Both women 
patiently maintain their male disguise in situations crying out for revela¬ 
tion. They differ, however, in their speech. Viola is discreet and solic¬ 
itous, Rosalind aggressive, mischievous, bantering, railing. Riffling 
through her endless personae with mystical ease, Rosalind seems con¬ 
scious of the fictiveness of personality. She theatricalizes her inner life. 
She stands mentally outside her role and all roles. Rosalind’s charac¬ 
teristic tone is roguish self-satire: “Make the doors upon a woman’s wit, 
and it will out at the casement; shut that, and ’twill out at the keyhole; 
stop that, ’twill fly with the smoke out at the chimney” (IV.i. 154-57). 
Her own darting wit is this gusty draft in the closed household of 


As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 


Renaissance womanhood. Rosalind turns words to smoke, a spiritualis¬ 
tic emanation of her restless motility of thought. Her performance in 
drag is high camp—a useful if passe homosexual term. The essence of 
camp is manner, not decor. Rosalind fulfills Christopher Isherwood’s 
definition of camp: she mocks something, her love for Orlando, which 
she takes seriously. Her supreme moment of high camp is the wooing 
scene, where she pretends to be what she really is—Rosalind. 

The Mercurius androgyne has the reckless dash and spontaneity of 
youth. Despite our racy modern bias, if Rosalind were to keep her male 
disguise, she would cease to grow as a character. Shakespeare’s plays, I 
said, esteem development and process, Dionysian transformation. Ro¬ 
salind transforms herself by going to the forest, but she would stagnate 
if she stayed there. Her valiant Amazon personality would be dimin¬ 
ished and trivialized. She would turn into Shakespeare’s other mercu¬ 
rial androgyne, the cavorting sky-spirit Ariel, who is all shape-shifting 
and speed, changing himself to Harpy and sea-nymph. Ariel, the trick¬ 
ster Till Eulenspiegel, and J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (a boy played by an 
actress), demonstrate the feminizing effects of psychic mutability on 
males. This reverses the principle I found in Michelangelo, where 
monumentality masculinizes women. Rosalind must put an end to her 
proteanism and rejoin the Renaissance social order. Modem produc¬ 
tions completely miss the severe pattern of ritualistic renunciation in As 
You Like It Rosalind is not Peter Pan, nor is she Virginia Woolf’s 
reckless, cigar-smoking Sally Seton. Rosalind is never madcap or flip¬ 
pant. Behind her playfulness of language and personae is a pressure of 
magisterial will. Multiplicity of mood tends toward anarchy. Shake¬ 
speare’s Renaissance wisdom subordinates that multiplicity to social 
structure, containing its exuberant energies in marriage. In the Renais¬ 
sance as now, play must be part of a dialectic of work, or it becomes 

At the climax of As You Like It, Rosalind constructs a ceremony of 
farewell to her androgynous self. It is her moment of maximum wit or 
creative intelligence. The play’s romantic entanglements are in total 
confusion. Rosalind proclaims that by “magic” she will deliver to each 
person his or her heart’s desire. The revelation of her own identity and 
gender is the key: As You Like It ends in an alchemical experiment 
where Rosalind, as the hermaphroditic Mercurius, transmutes the 
play’s characters and destinies, including her own. The magnum opus 
begins with a chant, a spell or litany of erotic fixation and frustration. 
The lines go round and round in circle magic, rings of the alchemical 
uroboros (V.ii.82-118, iv. 116-24). The play proposes a riddle, as 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

snarled as the Gordian knot. Rosalind’s personality, self-displayed, re¬ 
solves these dismaying intricacies. When she appears undisguised, 
Rosalind is the surprise conclusion to an elegant sexual syllogism. Her 
shamanistic epiphany reorders the erotic chaos of the play. This Sphinx 
answers her own riddle. Oedipus’ reply, “Man,” works again, for Rosa¬ 
lind is the anthropos or perfected man of alchemy. 

Rosalind’s hybrid gender and perpetual transformations are the 
quicksilver of the alchemical Mercurius, who had the rainbow colors of 
the peacock’s tail. Jung says Mercurius as quicksilver symbolizes “the 
‘fluid’, i.e., mobile, intellect.” Mercurius, like Rosalind, is “both mate¬ 
rial and spiritual.” 19 Rosalind’s spirituality is her purity, purpose, and 
romantic fidelity; her materiality is her realism and mordant pragma¬ 
tism. An alchemical treatise of the early seventeenth century is called 
Atalanta Fugiens, “Atalanta in flight.” It makes the swift huntress a 
metaphor for “the strength of the volatile Mercury.” 20 As You Like It 
compares Rosalind to Atalanta and identifies wit with speed: “All 
thoughts... are winged” (ER.ii.147; IV.i.135; IH.ii.273-74). In her 
emotional reserve and verbal agility, Rosalind is an Atalanta fugiens. 
The Philosopher’s Stone or hermaphroditic rebis of alchemy often has 
wings, which Jung interprets as “intuition or spiritual (winged) poten¬ 
tiality.” 21 Both masculine and feminine, Rosalind is a Mercurius of 
swift, sovereign intelligence. Speed as hermaphroditic transcendance: 
we see this in Vergil’s Amazon Camilla and Giambologna’s ephebic 
Mercury in ecstatic flight. 

Rosalind is the catalyst ofy 4 s You Like It, the magic elixir transmuting 
base into noble metals. The editor of Atalanta Fugiens remarks, “Mer¬ 
curius is the mercury in which the metals have to be dissolved, reduced 
to the primary matter before they can become gold.” 22 The rebis , we 
noted, is often shown as incestuous brother and sister. Shakespeare 
alters the forest roles of Lodge’s Rosalynde and Aliena (Celia) from 
page and mistress to brother and sister, as if to facilitate an alchemical 
analogy. This change does not preclude eroticism, in view of the lesbian 
tinge to Rosalind and Celia’s friendship. As first cousins, they too risk 
incest. The primary transactions undertaken by Shakespeare’s Mer¬ 
curius are the Sylvius-Phebe romance (which turns triangle) and the 
bamboozling of the lovelorn Orlando. These alchemical experiments, in 
the closed glass retort of the play, succeed. Like Nero, Rosalind experi¬ 
ments with person and place. But hers is white rather than black magic, 
leading to love and marriage rather than debauchery and death. 
Lodge’s Rosalynde claims to have a friend “deeply experienced in 
necromancy and magic,” but Shakespeare’s Rosalind boldly arrogates 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 


these occult powers to herself. Rosalind is both producer and star of the 
finale. Her hierarchically most commanding moment is paradoxically 
the one where she ritually lays aside her hermaphroditism to take up the 
socialized persona of obedient wife to Orlando. Her incantatory speech 
in female dress ceremonially restores heterosexual normality to the 
play. In it she names and cleanses her major social relationships, then 
reifies them. A new social structure is being constructed, with her father 
reinvested with his ducal authority. “Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame,” 
sings Jaques in the forest, a nonsense word bemusing scholars (II.v.49). I 
say, the duke is a dame. Rosalind, as much as her uncle, has usurped 
her father’s manhood. Now she surrenders what is not hers to reclaim 
her own sex. 

Rosalind’s magic is real, for she produces Hymen, the marriage spirit 
who enters with her in the last scene. Hymen is a prominent figure in 
court masque, but he is conspicuously out of place in a Shakespeare 
play. He is an embarrassment to modern commentators on the play, 
who ignore him whenever possible. Why this allegorical invasion of the 
naturalistic ^ 4 s You Like It? First of all, Hymen symbolizes the mass 
marriages which end Shakespearean comedy. He is reconciliation and 
social harmony, knitting the classes and leading the banished charac¬ 
ters back to the redeemed city. But Hymen is also a by-product of the 
play’s psycho alchemy. The alchemical operation had two parts: distilla¬ 
tion and sublimation. Hymen, traditionally depicted as a beautiful 
young man, is a sexual sublimate. He is the emanation or double of 
Rosalind herself. He is the ghost of her maleness, exorcised but linger¬ 
ing on to preside over the exit from Arden. Shakespeare’s technique 
here is allegorical repletion, the term I invented for Leonardo’s The 
Virgin with St Anne. Hymen’s odd doubling of Rosalind is like Leo¬ 
nardo’s awkward photographic superimposition of two female figures. 
Sexual personae flood the eye. The characters of As You Like It stand 
startled. Hymen is their collectively projected mental image of the 
transvestite Rosalind, now only a memory. Hymen is a visible distilla¬ 
tion of her transsexual experience. In her romantic conspiracies, Rosa¬ 
lind has impersonated Hymen and hence evoked his presence. As the 
Mercurius who overcomes sexual duality and perfects base materials, 
she possesses the magnetic power of concord, ensuring the integrity of 
Renaissance social order. 

Rosalind is, to borrow a phrase from Paracelsus, “a fiery and perfect 
Mercury extracted by Nature and Art.” 23 She reinterprets the classical 
Amazon, making physical prowess intellectual. Rosalind is Shake¬ 
speare’s version of Spenser’s glamourous androgynes. Britomart’s flash- 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

ing armour and flaming sword become Rosalihd’s unanswerable wit. 
Shakespeare’s transvestite heroine has masculine pride, verve, and cool 
aristocratic control—scarcely to be found in today’s simplistic, innocu¬ 
ous Rosalinds. The ideal Rosalind must have both lyricism and force. 
There must be intelligence, depth, spontaneity, something quick and 
vivacious, with a hint of the wild and uncontrolled. The girl-boy Rosa¬ 
lind is in Atalanta-flight from mood to mood, an adolescent skittishness. 
The closest thing I have ever seen to Shakespeare’s authentic Rosalind is 
Patricia Charbonneau’s spirited performance as a coltish Reno cowgirl 
in Donna Deitch’s film Desert Hearts (1985), based on a lesbian love 
story by Jane Rule. 

Rosalind as Mercurius has a quick smile and mobile eye. Shake¬ 
speare’s view of woman is revolutionary. Unlike Belphoebe or Brit- 
omart, Rosalind has a jovial inner landscape. It is not Spenser’s grim 
arena of virtue’s battle with vice. This landscape is airy and pleasant, 
full of charm and surprise. Rosalind’s self-pleasuring is not like Mona 
Lisa’s. No daemonic fog of solipsism hangs over her. Rosalind has an 
invigorating alertness. She is not smugly half-asleep, like Leonardo’s 
Renaissance woman. Mona Lisa still has the baleful Gorgon eye of 
archaic archetype. She bums us with her glance. The daemonic eye sees 
nothing but its prey. It seeks power, the fascism of nature. But Rosalind’s 
socialized eye moves to see. It takes things in. Hers are not the lustful 
rolling eyes of Spenser’s femmes fatales, which slither, pierce, and 
possess. Rosalind’s eye honors the integrity of objects and persons. Its 
mobility signals a mental processing of information, the visible sign of 
western intelligence. In Spenser, we saw, the virtuous eye is rigidly 
controlled. Until our century, a respectable woman kept her eyes mod¬ 
estly averted. Shakespeare legitimizes bold mobility of the female eye 
and identifies it with imagination. Rosalind’s eye is truly perceptive: it 
both sees and understands. Shakespeare’s great heroine unites multi¬ 
plicity of gender, persona, word, eye, and thought. 

Despite his love for the glamourous personality of multi¬ 
ple moods and masks, Shakespeare subordinates all his characters to 
the public good. The great chain of being reasserts itself at the end of his 
plays. The psycho-alchemic pattern of Shakespeare’s comedies is re¬ 
lease, remelting, and reincorporation in society. So Dionysian fluidity 
and metamorphoses move toward a final Apollonian ordering, a Re¬ 
naissance moral value in which Shakespeare rejoins Spenser. In Antony 
and Cleopatra (1606—07) Shakespeare amplifies the psychology of his 
transvestite comedies. Antony and Cleopatra shows us what happens 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 


when sexual personae refuse reincorporation in society and insist on 
remaining in nature, the realm of perpetual transformations. This play 
confirms that the price of Rosalind’s remaining an androgyne in the 
Forest of Arden would be spiritual death. 

Antony and Cleopatra , long thought technically flawed, may be the 
favorite Shakespeare play of my generation of critics. Unlike older 
scholars, some of us find King Lear boring and obvious, and we dread 
having to teach it to resentful students. Antony and Cleopatra has come 
into its own. Its choppy multitude of scenes, flying about the ancient 
Mediterranean, do not irritate sensibilities schooled on cinema. Here 
again is Shakespeare’s mobile eye. Spenser’s camera is the obsessive 
zoom lens, concentrated and iconistic. But Shakespeare’s hand-held 
camera takes to the air, dominating western space. Antony and Cleo¬ 
patra closely follows its source in Plutarch. But as usual, Shakespeare 
adds his own metamorphic metaphors and pyrotechnic personae. I see 
this play as the most thorough of Shakespeare’s replies to Spenser. The 
Egypt of Antony and Cleopatra is Spenser’s Bower of Bliss, fertile 
stamping ground of the femme fatale. But Shakespeare, the Dionysian 
alchemist, is determined to rescue nature from its daemonic taint. He 
will show it at its rawest and most brutal, then defend it. Yet Renais¬ 
sance order must have the last word. 

Over the past century, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra has undergone a 
radical change in critical fortunes. She used to be the lowest of the low 
among Shakespeare’s protagonists. Her sexual libertinism and vol¬ 
atility led to Victorian and post-Victorian vilification. Her sharp mood- 
changes were thought moral duplicity. In scholarly literature before the 
feminist 1970s, rare indeed is a comment like A. C. Bradley’s: “Many 
unpleasant things can be said of Cleopatra; and the more that are said 
the more wonderful she appears.” 24 Perhaps apociyphally, a Victorian 
theatergoer leaving a production of Antony and Cleopatra remarked, 
“How different from the domestic life of our own dear Queen.” Since 
then, there has been a huge shift in sexual assumptions about women, 
from which Cleopatra has profited. The Victorians admired Cordelia, 
Lear’s one honest daughter, as the saintly perfection of femininity. To 
me, probably as time-bound as they, Cordelia seems a vapid nincom¬ 
poop, self-righteous and self-thwarting. Even for her most generous 
apologists, Cleopatra presents interpretative problems. Her tempera¬ 
mental excesses make people uneasy. She is, in my terms, Shake¬ 
speare’s most uncontrolled and uncontrollable Dionysian androgyne, 
the metamorphosing Mercurius who obeys no law but her own. Hence 
she cannot survive her play. 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

Spenser makes England’s fierce Virgin Queen an ivory Diana. Shake¬ 
speare makes her an umber Venus. Antony and Cleopatra is a Baroque 
Venus and Mars , bursting Spenser’s chaste Botticellian line. Shake¬ 
speare repeats The Faerie Queene's psychological dialectic of definitive- 
ness and dissolution, but he reverses its meanings. Apollonian social 
order again opposes Dionysian energy and wins. But Shakespeare, 
unlike Spenser, gives his imaginative sympathies to the Dionysian ex¬ 
tremists. The traditional persona of republican Rome, we saw, was fixed 
to the point of rigidity. Antony and Cleopatra takes place at a great 
transition in history, when empire replaces republic, creating the era of 
international peace in which Christianity would spread. The old mas¬ 
culine Roman virtues are suddenly passe. Only Antony, the sexually 
most unstable male in Shakespeare’s play, extols machismo. His con¬ 
tempt for Octavius Caesar, the politician who refuses to meet him in 
hand-to-hand combat, strikes even us as faintly anachronistic, and his 
challenge is dismissed as absurd by the gruff Enobarbus, the lone 
Roman who has not yet smoothed his blunt speech into the glib diplo¬ 
macy of the dawning age of empire. 

In Antony and Cleopatra Rome follows a conservative republican 
psychology. Roman personality is strictly delimited, preserving the 
bounds of ego. At the news of Antony’s death, Caesar declares, “The 
breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack” (V.i.14—15). 
He means the announcing of so important an event should make a 
louder noise, like a thunderclap. But Caesar also envisions Antony’s 
death as the toppling and shattering of a statue, a colossus. Throughout 
the play, Roman personality is static and brittle, like stone. Caesar 
defines identity and kinship in legalistic terms. The abstract and public 
take precedence over the concrete, emotional, and sensuous ( 
The Romans constantly condemn Antony for abandoning the former 
for the latter. Roman social order is hierarchically inflexible, as Ven- 
tidius shrewdly sees. Rome’s voice is the bleak reality principle of 
political expediency. In Egypt, on the other hand, energy pours into self- 
expression. Antony and Cleopatra’s Alexandrian revels are an endless 
round of feasts and games. Enobarbus saw the panting Cleopatra “hop 
forty paces through the public street” (II.ii.235). Dionysian beings are 
playful and democratic. As queen, Cleopatra is indifferent to decorum. 
Her hilarity contrasts with Caesar’s puritanical sobriety. Caesar stands 
on ceremony. He is driven by a single purpose, consolidation of the 
Mediterranean under Roman rule. He has no personal life. He com¬ 
pletely identifies private with public interest. Hence he is unstoppable. 
Such men can be political geniuses or monsters. 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 


Roman time and Roman space also obey Apollonian laws. Caesar 
sees time as a linear strip, a Roman triumph, the chronicle of civic 
history (V.i.65-66). Cleopatra blurs time in the eternal now of imagina¬ 
tion. Narrated memories in Egypt have such emotional immediacy they 
seem more vivid than events before us. Enobarbus, a Roman in Rome, 
is overcome by Egyptian memory when he describes Cleopatra on her 
royal barge. Caesar remembers only for duty or revenge. Throughout 
the play, Roman space is defined by images of closure, contrasting with 
Antony and Cleopatra’s expansive “new heaven, new earth” of love 
(I.i. 17). Space is cut up like urban districts, the Apollonian borderlines 
of Greek demes and tracts. The Romans speak of hoops, edges, fences, 
stalls, pillars, the rigid language of public architecture and Apollonian 

Antony and Cleopatra respect no boundaries. Antony’s infatuation 
“o’erflows the measure.” He sends “his bounty overplus” even to defec¬ 
tors. His heart and chest burst his buckles. The heart of dead Cleopatra 
strains to blow free. Caesar places Antony’s old legions in the vanguard 
“that Antony may seem to spend his fury upon himself” (Li.2.;;—11). Even his archenemy acknowledges Antony’s transperso¬ 
nal extensiveness of identity. Everything in Egypt is abundance, pro¬ 
fligacy, Dionysian too-muchness: “Eight wild boars roasted whole at a 
breakfast, and but twelve persons there” (II.ii. 185-86). Caesar tries to 
channel and subdue the flood of emotion and sensation which is Egyp¬ 
tian experience. His victory is signalled when Cleopatra is “confined” to 
her tomb, the “frame” of his own Apollonian will (V.i.52—56). Like 
Blake’s tyrant Urizen, Caesar lays the cold compass of Apollonian 
measure upon Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” (II.ii.242). 

Caesar’s Roman world-view is a desiccated or devivified Apollonia- 
nism: hierarchical order and dignity, intellectual categorization, the 
sharp-edged unitary ego, separation from sexuality and the sensory. 
Caesar’s patron is, to use Nietzche’s phrase, “Apollo, the founder of 
states.” 25 Cleopatra’s world-view is promiscuously Dionysian: abolition 
of limits and boundaries, multiple personae, eating and drinking, sex, 
anarchic energy, natural fecundity. Caesar and his retinue call Antony 
effeminate, yet Antony is more masculine than Caesar in the usual 
sense. Caesar, a bland managerial type, is sexually neuter. He is an 
Apollonian androgyne. The dominant sexual persona of Spenser’s 
Faerie Queene has completely lost its glamour in Shakespeare’s Diony¬ 
sian genre. In Antony and Cleopatra, Apollonianism is merely officious¬ 
ness, the spite and banality of small minds. 

Cleopatra’s Dionysian multiplicity is richly illustrated throughout the 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

play. For example, when she hears of Antony’s marriage to Octavia, 
Cleopatra swerves back and forth between extreme emotions five times 
in ten lines (II.v. 109—19). Each mood-swing, toward and away from 
Antony, has its own operatic tone, gesture, and posture. Critics used to 
wonder which is the “real” Cleopatra, or where is she? The secondary 
selves must be cunning stratagems. Worse, the issue of Octavia’s height 
and hair color, interwoven with Cleopatra’s lamentations and faintings, 
make the queen seem silly and superficial in academic eyes. How like a 
woman! But Cleopatra is an actress, and as we shall see, theatricality is 
the model of human psychology in Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra is 
the sum of her masks. 

Cleopatra’s Dionysianism dissolves male into female. The fruitful 
female principle is so dominant in Shakespeare’s Egyptian Bower of 
Bliss that male power is dwarfed and stymied. Cleopatra is surrounded 
by eunuchs, disdained by the Romans. The historical Antony was al¬ 
ready a notorious drinker and carouser before he met Cleopatra, but in 
the play he is charged with Egyptian degeneration after a nobly stoic 
Roman past. For the Romans, Antony suffers a reduction of identity 
through his feminizing association with Cleopatra. But Shakespeare 
sees it as an aggrandizement of identity which Antony, unlike Rosalind, 
is unable to control. Cleopatra recalls a transvestite game where she 
decked Antony in her robes and headdress while she strapped on his 
battle sword (II.v.22—23). This detail is not in Plutarch, though every¬ 
thing else in the passage is. Surely Shakespeare is directly addressing 
Spenser here. He takes Artegall’s transvestite enslavement to the Ama¬ 
zon queen and recasts it with Dionysian dramatic energy. What is 
shameful and depressing in Spenser becomes playful and mirthful. 
Artegall is at a dead end. But Shakespeare’s transvestite Antony and 
Cleopatra give the impression of vitality, of identity opening and multi¬ 
plying. Exchange of clothing is a paradigm for the emotional union of 
love. Antony and Cleopatra so interpenetrate that they are mistaken for 
one another (I.ii.8o). 

Even before she absorbs Antony’s identity, Cleopatra is robustly half¬ 
masculine. Rivalled only by Rosalind, Cleopatra appropriates the pow¬ 
ers and prerogatives of both sexes more lavishly than any other charac¬ 
ter in literature. Her sexual personae are energized by stormy infusions 
of Dionysian nature-force. Here Rosalind is more limited because more 
civilized. Cleopatra is psychically immersed in the irrational and bar¬ 
baric. She is voluptuously female, a rarity in Shakespeare. Her sexuality 
is so potent in European terms that the Romans are always calling her 
whore, strumpet, trull. As the “serpent of old Nile,” she is the archetypal 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 


femme fatale (I.v.25). Cleopatra appears costumed as Isis, whom as 
queen she literally embodies. Her main distinction from the mocking 
Rosalind is her maternalism, which makes her cradle the asp like “my 
baby at my breast” (V.ii.309). The mother is one of Cleopatra’s many 
personae, but Rosalind and Spenser’s Britomart will become mothers 
only outside the frame of their works. This is because the archetype 
behind Rosalind is the chaste beautiful boy. Cleopatra is a virago, the 
androgynous type I found in Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel nudes, with 
their thrusting breasts. Rosalind inhabits the crisp Forest of Arden, the 
Northern European green world. But Cleopatra belongs to the heat- 
enervated Orient, whose oppressiveness hangs over Michelangelo’s 
women. Cleopatra is not more feminine than Rosalind, but she is far 
more female. Cleopatra greets the messenger: “Ram thou thy fruitful 
tidings in mine ears” (II.v.24). A pagan Annunciation. Physically crav¬ 
ing the absent Antony, Cleopatra is a sexual vessel forcibly filled. Yet the 
penetrating force is hers; she invokes it by command. Her overwrought 
metaphor incidentally implies a touch of homosexual perversion in the 
murder-by-ear of Hamlet senior in his drowsy Spenserian bower. 

Cleopatra’s male persona is equally strong. As queen of Egypt, Cleo¬ 
patra, like Hatshepsut, is an impersonation of a royal male. Janet Adel- 
man suggests that Cleopatra wearing Antony’s sword is a Renaissance 
Venus armata and that for battle at Actium she would appear in male 
dress. 26 Psychologically, Cleopatra is always armed. She has a fiery 
belligerence. She threatens to bloody her maid’s teeth; she even threat¬ 
ens Antony, using a pun which advertises her penis-envy (I.iii.40-41; 
ii.58-61). When the messenger arrives with news of Antony’s marriage, 
Cleopatra passes beyond threats to actual assault and batteiy, hitting 
him, hauling him up and down, and pulling a knife. Such scenes caused 
the long critical resistance to Cleopatra. By modem middle-class stan¬ 
dards, they require defense. Shakespeare gives Cleopatra an intemper¬ 
ate flair for masculine violence unique in the sympathetic portrayal of 
women in literature. The violence of Medea or Lady Macbeth is tran¬ 
sient, either male-inspired or deflected through a male’s action. In 
Cleopatra violence is constantly present as a potential male persona. It 
is the raging warfare of her hermaphrodite character. For parallels we 
must go to villainesses like Lear’s daughters or outside social literature 
to mythic horrors like Scylla. Into Cleopatra as Isis flows the untrans¬ 
formed energy of nature, sheer sex and violence. 

Is it unseemly for queens to brawl? Dionysian beings instinctively 
subvert the hierarchical. As an Italian, I have little problem reconciling 
violence with culture. Rousseau drove the wedge between aggression 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

and culture, so colorfully united in the Renaissance. Cleopatra’s pugi¬ 
listic energy is matched by her sadistic imagination and flights of dae¬ 
monic metaphor, where eyeballs are punted like footballs and whipped 
bodies steeped in pickle brine (II.v.63-66). Shakespeare shows us the 
turbulent emotion-in-action of the Dionysian androgyne. Language 
seethes like boiling oil. Cleopatra’s rabid speeches sound more shock¬ 
ing to Anglo-American than to Mediterranean ears. A savage vehe¬ 
mence of speech is common among southern peoples, due to the near¬ 
ness of agriculture and the survival of pagan intensity. Those who live 
on and by the land recognize nature’s terrible amorality. Cleopatra’s 
sadistic images are normal in Italian terms. My immigrant relatives 
used to say, “May you be killed!” or “May you be eaten by a cat!” 
Common Italian-American expressions, according to my father, took 
the form “Che te possono” (May such and such be done to you). For 
example, “May your eyes be tom out,” “May you drag your tongue 
along the ground,” “May they squeeze your testicles,” “May they sew 
up your anus.” The similarity to Cleopatra’s rhetorical style is obvious. 
Torture and homicide are immediately accessible to the Mediterranean 

I called Dionysian impulses sadistic, but the proper term is sadomas¬ 
ochistic, both active and passive. Provoked, Cleopatra is off on runaway 
flights of masochistic vision. It is the psychic countercurrent to her 
aggression, what Heracleitus calls enantiodromia , “running to its op¬ 
posite.” When Antony calls her “cold-hearted,” she blurts out a surreal 
fantasy of poison hail, blighted wombs, and unburied bodies covered 
with flies and gnats (IH.xiii. 158-67). Taken prisoner, she storms that, 
preferable to jeers in Rome, let her naked corpse be thrown into the 
mud and swelled up by waterflies—or hung in chains on a pyramid 
(V.ii.55—62). Cleopatra’s sadomasochistic imagination makes Diony¬ 
sian leaps through nature. Her body is the earth mother tom by the 
strife of the elements in the cycle of birth and death. Ugliness, pain, 
abortion, and decay are nature’s reality. Cleopatra’s rough speech has a 
daemonic eloquence. Shakespeare opens a window into the uncon¬ 
scious, where we see the sex and violence we cariy within us. There is 
the grinding dreamwork, spewing out metaphors which appall us. Cle¬ 
opatra’s images tumble out with bruising force, like the boulders tossed 
like chaff in Coleridge’s underground river. 

The passionately active Cleopatra contrasts with feminine, retiring 
Octavia. Chaste Octavia is a “swan’s-down feather” on the tide: she is 
will-less, the pawn of larger forces. She is of “a holy, cold, and still 
conversation,” a model Roman matron. She moves so primly “She 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 219 

shows a body rather than a life, / A statue than a breather” (III.ii.48; 122-23; III.iii.23-24). Like brother, like sister. In Shakespeare, 
iconic Apollonian statues are dead wood. Cleopatra’s Dionysian prote- 
anism and velocity take Shakespeare’s eye. He makes Octavia’s virtue 
seem torpid. Octavia is matter and Cleopatra energy. Cleopatra is 
scourge, not feather. Her dominion over gender is dramatized in ath¬ 
letic transformations of dizzying speed. “I am pale, Charmian,” she 
murmurs—and a line later leaps at the messenger and slugs him to the 
floor (II.v.59-61). Cleopatra vaults from one sexual extreme to the 
other, barely taking breath. The delicate Lady of the Camellias switch- 
hits with burly Ajax. The genders so indiscriminately mingle in Cleo¬ 
patra that she makes transsexual word errors under stress (II.v.40-41, 
116, 45). Cleopatra has a Dionysian all-inclusiveness. She breaks 
through social restraints to plunge into the sensual, orgiastic pleasure of 
pure feeling. 

Cleopatra embodies the Dionysian principle of theatricality. Shake¬ 
speare often makes analogies between personality and stagecraft but 
never, save in Hamlet , so systematically as he does in Antony and 
Cleopatra. From first scene to last, public and private behavior is cri¬ 
tiqued in terms of performance. Politics itself is stage-managed. Antony 
and Cleopatra are always going in and out of their legendary roles as 
Antony and Cleopatra. For Cleopatra, life is theater. She is a master 
propagandist. Truth is inconsequential; dramatic values are supreme. 
Cleopatra shamelessly manipulates others’ emotions like clay. Once her 
cleverness misfires, when she sends word she is dead and Antony kills 
himself. Cleopatra resembles Rosalind in the gleeful way she throws 
herself into a role. This is so even at her lowest moment, when she 
scripts her suicide. Like Rosalind, Cleopatra is producer and star of 
play’s end. She makes a masque-like tableau of her own death. Shake¬ 
speare presses Renaissance theatricality beyond moral norms. Meta¬ 
morphoses are horrific for both Spenser and Dante, who consigns 
impersonation to one of the lowest circles of the Inferno: incestuous 
Myrrha, “falsifying herself in another’s form,” is classed with liars and 
counterfeiters (XXX.41). Puritan hostility to theater was justified. Secu¬ 
lar theater is Greco-Roman and therefore pagan. Shakespeare makes 
Cleopatra his accomplice and advocate for dramatic impersonation. 

Cleopatra has a sensational flair for improvisation and melodrama. 
Her vamping and camping are more extreme than Rosalind’s as 
Ganymede. Cleopatra’s postures of romantic martrydom are as self- 
parodying as a drag queen’s. Self-parody is always sex-parody. The 
virtuoso tone of Cleopatra’s theatrics recurs in Wilde’s The Importance 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

of Being Earnest , where it clearly springs from wholesale desexualiza- 
tion of the characters. Cleopatra’s moment of maximum consciousness 
of persona is when she sets aside both feminine swooning and mas¬ 
culine intimidation for a briskly efficient interrogation of the messenger. 
She extorts intelligence on Octavia’s age, height, voice, hair, and face 
shape (Ill.iii). I consider this neglected scene one of the classic moments 
in all drama. A game of personae is being played. Cleopatra is mentally 
auditioning Octavia, cattily revising her virtues downward, always with 
her rival’s theatrical impact on Antony in mind. Cleopatra is gracious 
and queenly, but we tangibly feel her sense of her persona, as well as her 
maid Charmian’s sense of it. Charmian, like a church deacon, keeps 
piping up the required response, in ritual antiphony. Shakespeare 
makes us see Cleopatra’s detachment from her masks and yet her 
complete identification with them. Her showy self-representations have 
both intellectual duality and hierarchic authority. Cleopatra is Shake¬ 
speare’s despotic Muse of drama. 

The only character in literature whose theatrical personae rival Cleo¬ 
patra’s is Auntie Marne. Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Marne (1955) is the 
American Alice in Wonderland and in my view more interesting and 
important than any “serious” novel after World War II. The original 
book is far sharper than the wonderful play and movie (1958), starring 
the great Rosalind Russell. The subsequent musical and Lucille Ball 
movie (1974) are of little worth, turning the regal Auntie Marne into 
trivial spunk and cuddles. I mentioned Auntie Marne as a type of the 
Mercurius androgyne. She is an archaeologist of persona. Each event, 
each phase of life is registered in a change of costume and interior decor. 
Style and substance are one, in the Wildean manner. When the story 
opens in the Twenties, Auntie Marne is in her Chinese period, her Beek- 
man Place apartment as exotic as Shakespeare’s Egypt. Like Cleopatra, 
Auntie Marne stands for a flamboyant, extravagant, wine-drenched, 
ethnically diverse world threatened by a rationalist Apollonian prude, 
the wasp banker Mr. Babcock, Marne’s Caesar-like chief antagonist. 
Like Cleopatra, Marne is attended by androgynes—a giggling eunuch¬ 
like Japanese houseboy, a virago confidante (the actress and drunk, Vera 
Charles), and epicene party-guests (a “woman-man and man-woman”). 
Like Cleopatra, Marne is bossy, peremptory, and given to “a little half- 
hour show of histrionics,” “her lifetime habit.” Like Cleopatra, she has 
so many feminine personae that, mysteriously, she ends up ceasing to 
seem female at all. My Hermes/Mercury principle: a multitude of 
personae suspends gender. One remembers Marne’s long green lac- 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 


quered fingernails and sweeping bamboo cigarette holder, her Oriental 
robe of embroidered golden silk, her black satin sheets and bed jacket of 
pink ostrich feathers. Panic and crisis: how does one dress for Scarsdale? 
“Any discussion of clothing always won Auntie Marne’s undivided at¬ 
tention.” Trying to avoid a Georgia fox hunt, Marne “powdered herself 
dead white” and put on “an unbecoming shade of green.” 27 Auntie 
Marne is a study of multiple impersonations, the theatrical principle of 
western selfhood. Emotion is instantly objectified. Costume, speech, 
and manner are a public pagan language of the inner life. 

Expiring with emotion upon learning of her new rival, Cleopatra 
manages to convey to her envoy, “Let him not leave out the color of her 
hair.” Like Auntie Marne, Cleopatra, a creature of theater, sees persona 
as a mirror of soul. The pagan folk sciences, astrology, palmistry, and 
phrenology, have never forgotten that externals are truth. Beauty is only 
skin-deep; you can’t tell a book by its cover: these pious axioms come 
from a contrary moral tradition. The aesthete, who lives in a world of 
surfaces, and the male homosexual, who lives in a world of masks, 
believe in the absoluteness of externals. That is why Auntie Marne was a 
diva of homosexuals. Cleopatra’s multiple personae are far from femi¬ 
nine fickleness. She represents a radical theatricality in which the inner 
world is completely transformed into the outer. 

Did Shakespeare base Cleopatra on an Italian model? A. L. Rowse 
thinks the Dark Lady of the sonnets was the half-Italian Emilia Bas- 
sanio. Luigi Barzini describes “the importance of spectacle” in Italian 
culture, with its public staging of emotional scenes. He speaks of “the 
transparency of Italian faces,” which allows conversations to be fol¬ 
lowed at a distance: “Undisguised emotions, some sincere and some 
feigned, follow each other on an Italian’s face as swiftly as the shadows 
of clouds over a meadow on a windy day in spring.” 28 Shakespeare’s 
self-dramatizing Cleopatra has a fluid Italian expressiveness. In her 
amoral dissimulations, she confirms the negative Northern European 
view of Italian and papist character in the Renaissance. Renaissance 
England was more flamboyant than modern England but less so than 
Renaissance Italy. Hence in the spiritual geography of Antony and 
Cleopatra , Egypt is to Rome as Renaissance Italy was to Renaissance 
England. Cleopatra belongs to an emotional and sexual southland. But 
Shakespeare is well aware of the anarchic danger in a life of impersona¬ 
tions. Caesar wins in Antony and Cleopatra because he represents 
political order, the dream of the fractured, fractious Renaissance. An¬ 
tony and Cleopatra's reactionary political premise is borne out by Italian 

2 22 

Shakespeare and Dionysus 

history, where theatrical individualism weakened centralized authority, 
aiding the rise of the tribal Mafia. Since World War II, nearly fifty 
governments have come and gone in Rome. Restless change is the rule. 

We turn now to the ultimate question of Shakespeare’s play. If Cleo¬ 
patra contains all emotional modes and all powers of male and female, 
why is she defeated by the world? Why is she not a perfected image of 
man? Cleopatra dies, while Rosalind triumphantly survives, because 
Cleopatra is an incomplete Mercurius and as such cannot advance her 
play toward the goal of English Renaissance art: social and hierarchical 
consolidation. An important image pattern in Antony and Cleopatra has 
aroused little or no comment. Astrology, even more than alchemy, was 
one of the great symbol systems of the Renaissance. Its iconography per¬ 
vaded Renaissance art, book illustration, and interior decor. The for¬ 
midable combined forces of Judeo-Christianity and modem science 
have never succeeded in wiping out pagan astrology, nor will they ever. 
Astrology supplies what is missing in the west’s official moral and intel¬ 
lectual codes. Astrology is the oldest organized art form of sexual per¬ 
sonae. Waging war on astrology, the medieval and Renaisssance Church 
promulgated the distortion that astrology is fatalism, a flouting of God’s 
Providence and the necessity for moral struggle. But the predictive part 
of astrology is less important than its psychology, which three thousand 
years of continuous practice have given a phenomenal subtlety. Astrol¬ 
ogy does insist upon self-discipline and self-transformation. Judging 
astrology by those vague sun-sign columns in the daily paper is like 
judging Christianity by a smudged shop window of black-velvet day-glo 
paintings of the Good Shepherd. The idea that the stars literally in¬ 
fluence men (by a falling fluid, an influenza) is plainly untenable. But 
that the movements of the constellations are a clock by which earthly 
changes can be measured is less easy to dismiss. I subscribe to w T hat Jung 
calls synchronicity. Things happen in complex patterns of apparent 
coincidence, noticed by the keen eyes of the artist. Astrology links man 
to nature, its major point of departure from Judeo-Christianity. The 
Greek word zodiac means circle of animals. Most birth signs are sym¬ 
bolized by animals, whose character astrology identifies with human 
types. Our behaviorist age is generally resistant to the idea of genetic 
traits, for individuals, sexes, or races. But ask any mother of a large 
family w T hether personality is innate or learned. She senses a child’s 
inborn shyness or aggression from earliest infancy. People who dismiss 
astrology do so out of either ignorance or rationalism. Rationalists have 
their place, but their limited assumptions and methods must be kept out 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 


of the arts. Interpretation of poem, dream, or person requires intuition 
and divination, not science. 

The Renaissance embraced astrology as part of its infatuation with 
sexual personae. Antony and Cleopatra ,, Shakespeare’s greatest drama 
of sexual personae, makes astrological metaphors crucial to its psycho¬ 
logical design. Each sign of the zodiac is associated with one of the four 
elements, named by the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles. From 
long study, I summarize the astrological meaning of the elements as 
follows. Fire is will, originality, boldness, the amoral life force. Air is 
language, wit, balance, humane perspective. Water is intuition, sym¬ 
pathy, deep feeling, mystical oneness, and prophecy. Earth is order, 
method, precision, realism, materialism. Modem science discarded the 
four elements in favor of finer terminology. From the late Renaissance 
on, more and more basic elements were discovered, now approaching 
one hundred. John Anthony West claims, however, that the four princi¬ 
pal elements of modem organic chemistry, hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, 
and nitrogen, closely correspond in function to fire, earth, air, and 
water. 29 Northrop Fiye says, “Earth, air, water, and fire are still the four 
elements of imaginative experience, and always will be.” 30 A person’s 
natal horoscope sometimes lacks one of the four elements, a disturbing 
imbalance which can and should be compensated for through self- 
analysis and vigilant effort. My theory is that Shakespeare has cast for 
Cleopatra a horoscope lacking the element of earth and that this psy¬ 
chic incompletion, with her refusal to correct it, dooms both herself and 

The most poetic speech in the play, by normally curt Enobarbus, is a 
gorgeous dreamlike memory of Cleopatra’s arrival at Tarsus to meet 
Antony: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, / Burned on the 
water” (II.ii. 197-98). Cleopatra is Venus in motion, a Dionysian epiph¬ 
any. Shakespeare is answering the frozen iconic entrance of Spenser’s 
Belphoebe, the Apollonian Diana. With its gold deck and purple sails, 
the barge is the Amazon sanctuary of Phoenician Dido, whom Vergil 
decks with red and gold. Cleopatra carries her own bower with her, 
getting it out of the swampy Spenserian glade onto the brisk high seas. 
Shakespeare’s motion picture has its own soundtrack, flute music and 
the beating of silver oars. Air and water swirl toward the barge, which 
exudes “a strange invisible perfume.” A magnetism or suction pulls 
people out of the marketplace toward the wharves. Cleopatra as Venus 
is the power of physical attraction among the elements, which Empe¬ 
docles attributes to Aphrodite. She is in heat: Shakespeare carefully 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

adds fire to his tableau. That the barge “burns” is his addition to 
Plutarch’s description. Cleopatra is Venus born from the sea. In En- 
obarbus’ speech, she commands three elements: water, air, and fire. 
Earth is pointedly excluded. In fact, earth is evacuated, denuded of its 
properties by the rush of citizens shoreward. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is 
the free play of sovereign imagination, hostile to the steadfastness and 
stability of earth. 

The climax of Antony and Cleopatra is the battle of Actium, a turning 
point in western history. Antony’s loss is Caesar’s gain and the begin¬ 
ning of Roman empire, united under one man. Shakespeare stunningly 
mythologizes Plutarch’s account, without loss of factual accuracy. He 
introduces elemental metaphors effecting a poetic transformation of 
history. Antony’s fateful decision to fight by sea ruins him. Commander 
of infantrymen and master of land warfare, he foolishly allows Cleo¬ 
patra to dictate his battle plan. The Egyptians are seafarers. Cleopatra 
insists the ultimate contest with Caesar be by navy, not army. Antony’s 
seasoned soldiers passionately appeal to him, but blinded by love, he 
waves them away. In agreeing to fight by sea, Antony repudiates the 
element of earth, the foundation of his illustrious career. At the same 
time, he shrugs off common sense and practicality, qualities astrologi- 
cally symbolized by earth. In imposing the element of water upon her 
lover, Cleopatra destroys him. Shakespeare weaves the elemental imag¬ 
ery into the play from the start, so that the words “land” and “sea” 
chime ominously in the deliberations at Actium. 

The scene where Antony blithely severs his connection with earth 
ends with the naming of Caesar’s lieutenant, Taurus (III.vii.78). The 
next scene, just a few lines long, begins with Caesar calling out to 
Taurus, who answers and departs, his sole appearance in the play. 
Shakespeare has plucked this name from Plutarch’s roster of military 
officers at Actium. A Renaissance audience, familiar with simple astrol- 
ogy, would immediately recognize that Taurus is the first of the three 
earth signs of the zodiac. Taurus was also Shakespeare’s birth sign. This 
is what Maynard Mack would call “the emblematic entrance and exit” 
in Shakespeare’s plays. 31 Caesar’s deputy is an earth-spirit because 
Antony and Cleopatra identifies Caesar with the astrological qualities of 
earth—patience, pragmatism, emotional reserve, discipline, applica¬ 
tion. Caesar is the reality principle, Realpolitik. He represents what 
Antony and Cleopatra have rejected, and because drama must take 
place in human space and human time, he defeats them. Psychic fixity 
overcomes psychic volatility. The historical Caesar was himself ruled by 
an earth sign. Suetonius reports that Augustus Caesar commemorated 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 

22 J 

an astrological prediction of his rise to power by ordering struck “a silver 
coin stamped with Capricorn, the sign under which he had been 
born.” 32 In Antony and Cleopatra Caesar consolidates his Capricomian 
earth-power by binding Taurus to him, taking away the heart of An¬ 
tony’s military identity. 

Ancient and modem historians have been puzzled by Cleopatra’s 
sudden flight from the battle of Actium, and even more by Antony’s 
shameful abandonment of his troops and ships to follow her. As Shake¬ 
speare presents it, Cleopatra and the Antony whom she has infected 
veer off from the theater of war because of a lack of the tenacity and 
resolution that earth contributes to a horoscope. Cleopatra is the “fire 
and air” of imagination afloat upon the sea of perpetual transforma¬ 
tions. Fire is her fierce or fiery character of aggression and violence. Air 
is her verbal energy and poetic power of image-making. Water is her 
uncontainable surges of emotion and her mercurial shifts of mood. 
Cleopatra’s personae are in constant, uncontrollable change because 
earth is not present to stabilize or set a single persona. The sea she 
chooses at Actium is Dionysian “liquid nature,” a phrase from else¬ 
where in Plutarch. This is the watery chthonian which separates her 
from Rosalind. 

Cleopatra is Egypt, and Egypt is the Nile. In the Renaissance way, 
Cleopatra is addressed by the name of her realm, even by Antony. In 
Antony and Cleopatra , dry Egyptian earth has no inherent value. Fertil¬ 
ity comes only when earth is subdued by water, turned to “slime and 
ooze” by the flooding Nile (II.vii.22). This muck is the primal swamp of 
Dionysian metamorphosis. The Egyptian serpent (already identified 
with Cleopatra) is bred from mud by the fiery sun (Il.vii.26-27; I.iii.68— 
69). Cleopatra as Isis is Great Mother to her people. But Antony, in 
entering the humid Bower of Bliss of her liquid realm, loses his sense of 
self. He is not just a private person but a leader upon whom thousands 
depend. A leader cannot live by love alone. Antony betrays his men, and 
he betrays himself. The lovers’ indifference to public concerns and their 
exaltation of emotion over duty are prefigured from the start in meta¬ 
phors which inundate land with water. Antony declares, “Let Rome in 
Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall!”—unadmira- 
ble sentiments for a Roman triumvir (I.i.33—34). Cleopatra angrily 
cries, “Sink Rome!” and “Melt Egypt into Nile!” (Ill.vii. 15; II.v.78, 94). 
Antony and Cleopatra, obliterating earth in the waters of emotion, 
cannot resist the steady, inexorable pressure of earth’s representative, 

The Renaissance Shakespeare knows Antony and Cleopatra are mor- 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

ally in the wrong, yet he projects into them the liquefied proteanism of 
his own artistic self. Antony, once the “pillar” of the Roman world, sees 
himself turning into shifting clouds, shapes of horse, bear, lion, citadel, 
cliff, mountain (IV.xiv.2-14). Cleopatra has dissolved and naturalized 
him. Jane Harrison says of the Greek Orphics, with their persistent 
cloud metaphors, “Their theogony, their cosmogony, is full of vague 
nature-impersonations, of air and ether and Erebos and Chaos, and the 
whirlpool of things unborn.” 33 Orphism is anti-Olympian and hence 
anti-Apollonian. In Antony and Cleopatra , Apollonian Rome, with its 
statutory limits, sets up rational barriers to the chaotic flux of sensory 
experience. Antony is alchemized by Cleopatra, queen of Dionysian 
nature. He is hermaphroditized by his dissolution in watery Egypt. 
Mars drowns in Venus. At his darkest moment, Antony says to Cleo¬ 
patra, “Love, I am full of lead” (III.xi.72). This is the play’s nadir, before 
the transformation begins into spiritual gold. 

Magic and prophecies are efficacious throughout. After his death, 
Cleopatra sees Antony as the astrological cosmic man, his eyes the sun 
and moon (V.ii.8o). The hermaphrodite rebis of alchemy was often 
shown as a union of Sol and Luna, sun and moon. Both Antony and 
Cleopatra reach perfection in death. As the incomplete Mercurius, 
Cleopatra must achieve her magnum opus outside of life rather than in 
it. Before her suicide, she says, “Now from head to foot / I am marble- 
constant: now the fleeting moon / No planet is of mine” (239-41). 
Cleopatra is renouncing what Shakespeare elsewhere calls “the wat’ry 
moon,” the symbol of emotional volatility we found in As You Like It 
(.Midsummer II. 1.162). At last she acquires that stony fixity of will which 
the play ascribes to Roman personality. Her ceaseless transformations 
end in the immobility of death—immutable as the Philosopher’s Stone. 
Death is already in her lips when she says, “I am fire, and air; my other 
elements / I give to baser life” (289—90). Actually, she has finally mas¬ 
tered her too-combustible fire and air and achieved a spiritual integra¬ 
tion of all four elements. With the addition of “marble-constant” earth, 
the coldness of death, Cleopatra is now the complete Mercurius, en¬ 
shrined upon her altar-like bier. “Husband, I come,” she says to the 
dead Antony. The medieval alchemic process was called both marriage 
bed and funeral bier. Those who have sought a redemptive pattern in 
Antony and Cleopatra are correct, but Christian it is not. Shakespeare 
ends his play with the alchemic purification of pagan personality. 

The symbolic marriage of Antony and Cleopatra, enacted at the 
moment of death, removes the lovers from the social order. Their 
hedonism and self-involvement have damaged their nations and their 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 


cause. Eight boars for breakfast is no recipe for political success. Cleo¬ 
patra was the last of the Ptolemies, a three-hundred-year-old Macedo¬ 
nian dynasty. After her death, Egypt was annexed as subject state to 
Rome and never regained its former glory. Antony and Cleopatra dem¬ 
onstrates that life cannot be lived as a series of perpetual self-transfor¬ 
mations without violating social and ethical principles. My generation 
learned this the hard way, going down in sexual disease and drug 
overdoses. Antony and Cleopatra takes a double point of view: Shake¬ 
speare acknowledges the eternal authority of beauty and imagination, 
but he renders unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Social order 
and stability were primary English Renaissance values. This is why 
Rosalind, unlike Cleopatra, is the perfected Mercurius. At the end of 
her play, Rosalind demonstrates the subordination of personality to 
society by relinquishing her theatrical androgyny and metamorphoses 
for obedience in marriage. Hierarchy is restored, in home and palace. 

If Rosalind is a role difficult to play, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is even 
more so. A bad Rosalind is simply simpering or flat. But a bad Cleopatra 
is ludicrous. No one fits the part—except Tina Turner, Kent Chris¬ 
tensen’s superb suggestion to me. In the video of “What’s Love Got To 
Do With It?” Tina Turner is Shakespeare’s “tawny” Cleopatra in all her 
moods, regal, raffish, masculine, maternal, strolling among her people 
in the city streets. Cleopatra’s fiery sexual expressionism is Shake¬ 
speare’s reply to the cool introversion of Spenser’s chaste heroines. 
Cleopatra is Amazon and mother but also chatterbox. The silent picto¬ 
rial iconicism of The Faerie Queene is part of the poem’s search for self¬ 
definition. Spenser turns the hard Apollonian line against his own 
plush pornographic impulses. Shakespeare bases language in the Di¬ 
onysian body. In all his mature plays, speech is sensory and muscular. 
Stage gesture and movement are implicit in the zigzagging syntax. 
Every major Shakespeare character unites sexual personae with bloom¬ 
ing language, while Spenser divides them. Nothing in literature is more 
majestic than the sound of a true king speaking in Shakespeare. The 
enormous assertion of that voice and the internal stability in the verse 
are functions of Renaissance hierarchy, overflows of the great chain of 
being. Unfortunately, the heroic Shakespearean sound is muffled these 
days for scaled-down television performance or productions by liberal 
directors with antifascist axes to grind. But Shakespeare’s aristocratic 
voice must be heard. It is a moral ideal. Rosalind and Cleopatra, we 
have seen, strain at the limits of the Renaissance hierarchic code. 
Shakespeare dramatizes the Renaissance tension between sexual per¬ 
sonae and social order, one of his profoundest concerns. The major 


Shakespeare and Dionysus 

theme of Shakespeare’s plays is personality-in-history, the heart of 
western identity. 

Spenser, Shakespeare, and Freud are the three greatest sexual psy¬ 
chologists in literature, continuing a tradition begun by Euripides and 
Ovid. Freud has no rivals among his successors because they think he 
wrote science, when in fact he wrote art. Spenser, the Apollonian picto- 
rialist, and Shakespeare, the Dionysian alchemist, compete for artistic 
control of the English Renaissance. Shakespeare unlooses his meta- 
morphic flood of words and personae to escape Spenser’s rigorous 
binding. Luckily, he had drama to flourish in. In this genre he could be 
free of Spenser’s strictures. The contrast between Shakespeare and 
Spenser is replayed in Metaphysical poetry, the next important literary 
movement. John Donne is Shakespeare’s heir, muscular, theatrical, and 
metaphor-ridden. Donne fills even devout religious poems with flam¬ 
boyant sexual personae and eccentric transpositions of gender. George 
Herbert is Spenser’s heir. The exquisite aestheticism of The Faerie 
Queene turns into feminine homoeroticism in Herbert. The silvery 
sweetness of Herbert’s simple style is exactly like Sappho’s. If you want 
to know how Sappho sounds in Greek, don’t read her pedestrian trans¬ 
lators; read Herbert. Herbert discourages anything abrupt or em¬ 
phatic—that is, masculine. Climactic speech is often ignored, re¬ 
strained, or expelled. Herbert’s world of contemplative serenity and 
whispery intimacies is androgynous. Its divine male presences have 
internalized femininity, so that real women are unnecessary and de trop. 
Though his poems seem disarmingly open and transparent, Herbert is 
psychologically embowered. He is alone, under Spenserian glass. 

Shakespeare managed to evade Spenser, but Milton as epic poet had 
to meet Spenser on his own turf. Paradise Lost ( 1660) staggers under the 
burden of The Faerie Queene . If Spenser is the English Botticelli, Mil- 
ton is its Bernini. Paradise Lost is a Baroque Laocoon, strangling itself 
with its own stately ornateness. Though Milton uses Shakespeare’s 
over-spilling line, Shakespeare’s speed is gone. The best things in Para¬ 
dise Lost are pagan developments of Spenser. The worst things are 
humorless Protestant sermonizing, which has imprisoned this poem in 
parochial nationalism. Milton can only be read in English. Translated, 
he withers. The pagan Spenser corrupts the Puritan Milton. Milton 
tries, vainly, to correct Spenser morally. But Italian pictorialism, coming 
partly through The Faerie Queene and partly through the most decadent 
passages of the Aeneid, swamps Milton’s Protestant iconoclasm. Spen¬ 
ser’s radiant Apollonian armouring becomes Milton’s louring metallic 
daemonism, militant and misogynistic. Satan’s legions gleam with hard 

As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra 


Spenserian light. Milton sinks when he sings of the foggy formlessness 
of good. His God is poetically impotent. But his noisy, thrashing Spen¬ 
serian serpents and monsters; his lush Spenserian embowered Par¬ 
adise; his evil, envious Spenserian voyeurism: these are immortal. 
Milton tries to defeat Spenser by wordiness, Judaic word-fetishism, 
tangling the Apollonian eye in the labyrinth of etymology. Shakespeare 
succeeded here by joining words to pagan sexual personae. But the 
Christian Milton is mastered by Spenser, who bounds over him and 
through him to Romanticism. 

Return of the Great Mother 

Rousseau versus Sade 

Romanticism is the forge of modem gender. Two Renais¬ 
sance principles reemerge: flamboyant androgynous sex roles and the 
idea of divinely inspired artistic genius. The Renaissance, we saw, 
revived the Apollonian element in Greco-Roman paganism. In Renais¬ 
sance art, even Dionysian beings, like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, are 
subordinated to social and moral order. Romanticism swings toward 
Apollo’s rival, Dionysus, who appears in a great wave of the chthonian. 
The Enlightenment, developing Renaissance innovations in science 
and technology, was ruled by the Apollonian mind. Not since Greek 
high classicism had clarity and logic been so promoted as intellectual 
and moral values, determining the mathematical form of poetry, art, 
architecture, and music. “ORDER is Heav’n’s first law,” says Pope, 
from the cold beauty of Descartes and Newton’s mechanical universe 
(Essay on Man, IV.49). The Enlightenment, as Peter Gay asserts, used 
pagan scientism to free European culture from Judeo-Christian theol¬ 
ogy. 1 Reason, not faith created the modern world. But overstress of any 
faculty causes a rebound to the other extreme. The Apollonian Enlight¬ 
enment produced the counterreaction of irrationalism and daemonism 
which is Romanticism. 

Romanticism makes a regression to the primeval, the archaic night- 
world defeated and repressed by Aeschylus’ Oresteia. It brings a return 
of the Great Mother, the dark nature-goddess whom St. Augustine 
condemns as the most formidable enemy of Christianity. Turning from 
society toward nature, Rousseau creates the Romantic world-view. 
Though he allows authority to the state for public good, his most 
enduring bequest is the flamingly antiestablishment stance of radicals 


Rousseau versus Sade 


from Blake and Marx to the Rolling Stones. Rousseau makes freedom a 
western watchword. Like the Renaissance, the Enlightenment glam¬ 
ourized hierarchy, the great chain of being swept away by Romanticism. 
For Rousseau, the Swiss Protestant reformer, no hierarchy comes from 
nature. Politics can be reshaped by human will, for human benefit. 
Romanticism regards hierarchy as a repressive social fiction. But man is 
biologically a hierarchical animal. When one hierarchy is removed, 
another automatically springs up to take its place. The great irony of 
Romanticism is that a movement predicated on freedom will com¬ 
pulsively reenslave itself to imaginative orders even more fixed. 

Nature, hailed by Rousseau and Wordsworth as a benevolent mother, 
is a dangerous guest. The ancient cult-followers of Dionysus knew that 
subordination to nature is a crucifixion and dismemberment. Human 
identity is obliterated in the Dionysian conversion of matter to energy, 
a theme of Euripides’ Bacchae. Romanticism, like the Rousseauist 
Swinging Sixties, misunderstands the Dionysian as the pleasure princi¬ 
ple, when it is in fact the gross continuum of pleasure-pain. Worship¬ 
ping nature and seeking political and sexual freedom, Romanticism 
ends in imaginative entrammelment of every kind. Perfect freedom is 
intolerable and therefore impossible. 

Romanticism’s overexpanded superself immediately subjects itself to 
artificial restraints as a chastening ascesis , a discipline and punishment. 
First of all, Romantic poetry invents an archaic ritual form, implicitly 
pagan. Second, it steeps itself in sadomasochistic eroticism, never fully 
acknowledged by scholars. The sadomasochism becomes blatant in 
Decadent Late Romanticism, which defies Rousseau and Wordsworth 
by rejecting chthonian nature for Apollonian aestheticism. I view 
nineteenth-century Decadence as a Mannerist convolution of High 
Romanticism and date it unusually early—1830. The themes I find in 
High and Late Romanticism—cruelty, sexual ambiguity, narcissism, 
fascination, obsession, vampirism, seduction, violation—are all the 
still-uncharted psychodynamics of erotic, artistic, and theatrical ca- 
thexis. I define American Romanticism as Decadent Late Romanti¬ 
cism, in the French manner. Decadence is a counterreaction within 
Romanticism, correcting its tilt toward Dionysus. This ambivalent pat¬ 
tern is there from the start. Rousseau is savagely answered by the 
decadent Marquis de Sade, who stands half in the Enlightenment, half 
in Romanticism. Blake, Sade’s British brother, answers himself, his 
voices of experience devouring his voices of innocence. And Words¬ 
worth is secretly answered and undermined by his colleague Coleridge, 


Return of the Great Mother 

who through Byron and Poe turns Romanticism into Decadence in 
English, American, and French literature and art. 

Rousseau and Wordsworth, loving female nature, open the door of a 
closet St. Augustine locked. Out pop vampires and spirits of the night, 
who still stalk our time. We remain in the Romantic cycle initiated by 
Rousseau: liberal idealism cancelled by violence, barbarism, disillu¬ 
sion, cynicism. The French Revolution, degenerating into the bloody 
Reign of Terror and ending in the restoration of monarchy in imperial 
Napoleon, was the first failed Rousseauist experiment. Rousseau be¬ 
lieves man naturally good. Evil springs from negative environmental 
conditioning. Rousseau’s saintly child, marred by society, is opposed by 
Freud’s aggressive, egomaniacal infant—whom I hear and see every¬ 
where. But Rousseauism flourishes among today’s social workers and 
childcare experts, whose smooth, sunny voices too often exude piety 
and paternalism. 

In The Confessions , modelled on Augustine’s, Rousseau says a child¬ 
hood incident formed his adult sexual tastes. He is eight, beaten and 
inadvertently aroused by a woman of thirty. Since then, his desires have 
been masochistic: “To fall on my knees before a masterful mistress, to 
obey her commands, to have to beg for her forgiveness, have been to me 
the most delicate of pleasures.” In love, he is passive; women must make 
the first move. 2 Rousseau ends the sexual scheme of the great chain of 
being, where male was sovereign over female. In Romanticism, unlike 
the Renaissance, Ajnazons retain their power. Rousseau wants it both 
ways. Idolizing woman is natural and right, a cosmic law. On the other 
hand, male recessiveness is blamed on female coercion. Either way, 
sadomasochistic dominance and submission are inherent in Rousseau¬ 
ism from the start. 

Rousseau feminizes the European male persona. The late eighteenth 
century, the Age of Sensibility, gives the ideal man a womanlike sen¬ 
sitivity. He is Castiglione’s courtier without athleticism or social savvy. 
He looks to nature and beauty with misty emotion. Rousseau makes 
sensibility a prelude to Romanticism. The Petrarchan lover fancied 
himself deliciously powerless vis-a-vis one charismatic ice-queen. The 
man of feminized sensibility lacks an erotic focus. He is sufficient unto 
himself, savoring his own thoughts and feelings. His narcissism evolves 
into Romantic solipsism, doubt about the reality of things outside the 

For Rousseau and the Romantics, the female principle is absolute. 
Man is a satellite in woman’s sexual orbit. Rousseau calls his first 

Rousseau versus Sade 

2 3) 

patron, Madame de Warens, “Mamma,” and she calls him “Little one.” 
Stendhal’s heroes will replay Rousseau’s erotics of maternalism. Rous¬ 
seau says of his sexual initiation by De Warens, “I felt as if I had 
committed incest.” She later “compells” him to put on her dressing 
gown: he is transvestite priest to a goddess. Rousseau attends the Vene¬ 
tian carnival as a masked lady, then adopts Armenian robes as daily 
dress and busies himself making laces: “I took my cushion round with 
me on visits, or worked at my door, like the women.” 3 Rousseau absorbs 
femininity from women, but they cannot reciprocate. They must remain 
female. He is repulsed by the flat chest of intellectual Madame d’Epi- 
nay. But the voluptuous female figure is enhanced by transvestism: 
Madame d’Houdetot, model for his Nouvelle Heloise , conquers Rous¬ 
seau when she arrives on horseback in men’s clothes. 

Rousseau’s nature-theory is grounded in sex. Worshipping nature 
means worshipping woman. She is a mysterious superior force. Late in 
life, Rousseau likes to let his boat drift in a Swiss lake (a scene paral¬ 
leled in Wordsworth’s Prelude ): “Sometimes I cried out with emotion: 
‘O Nature! O my mother! I am here under your sole protection. Here 
there is no cunning and rascally man to thrust himself between us’.” 4 
The son-lover of the Great Mother spurns his sibling rivals. For all his 
talk of tenderness and fraternity, Rousseau was notoriously quarrel¬ 
some, finding conspiracy and persecution everywhere. He constantly 
fought with male friends, including his benefactor, British philosopher 
David Hume. Rousseau’s flights from city to nature were pilgrimages 
purifying him of masculine contamination. He started a fashion. Once 
Rousseau lauded the Alps, Van den Berg says, people’s desire to see 
Switzerland spread through Europe “like an epidemic”: “It was then 
that the Alps became a tourist attraction.” 5 

Through power of imaginative projection, Rousseau imprinted Euro¬ 
pean culture with his peculiar constellation of sexual personae. The 
man who created modem autobiography made political science auto¬ 
biographical. He was the first to claim what we call a sexual identity. 
Before the late eighteenth century, identity was determined internally 
by moral consciousness and externally by family and social class. Rous¬ 
seau anticipates Freud in inserting sex into the childhood drama of 
character development. How striking a departure this was is clear when 
we compare Rousseau to his self-analytic French precursors. In his 
Essays (1580), Montaigne lists his sexual habits as casually as his menus 
or bowel movements. Sex for Montaigne is office schedule and flow 
chart: how often and at what times of day does he lie with his wife? The 


Return of the Great Mother 

sex act is rhetorically equivalent to his taste in wines or reluctance to use 
silverware (an effete Italian import). Montaigne’s identity is not shaped 
by sex. He is discursive intellect musing on social custom. Pascal’s 
Pensees (1670) strip away Montaigne’s cheerful intimacies. Pascal says 
Montaigne talks too much of himself. In the transition from Renais¬ 
sance to seventeenth century, identity has become barer and more 
anxious. Pascal never reflects upon his sexual identity. The supreme 
question is the soul’s relation to God, or, more fearfully, the soul’s 
relation to a universe without God. Sex is merely part of the earthliness 
impeding man’s spiritual struggles. 

Rousseau makes sex a master principle of western character. Psychic 
fluidity and ambiguity, themes of Shakespeare’s transvestite comedies, 
enter the mainstream of thought and behavior. Autobiography becomes 
apologia. The Confessions are a romance of self. Rousseau is the first to 
trace adult perversity to childhood trauma. The Christian quest for 
salvation is recast in erotic terms. Rousseau’s guiding female spirits are 
apparitions, angels, and demons. He is a pagan Moses, climbing the 
Alps to meet his god. Adrift in the lake, he floats in the womb of liquid 
nature. The sexual revolution he wrought is evident in the emergence of 
homosexuality as a formal category. From antiquity, there were homo¬ 
sexual acts, honorable or dissolute depending on culture and time. 
Since the late nineteenth century, there is homosexuality, a condition of 
being entered after searching or “questioning,” a Rousseauist identity 
crisis. Modem psychology, following Rousseau, pessimistically roots 
sex deeper than does Judeo-Christianity, which subordinates sex to 
moral will. Our sexual “freedom” is a new enslavement to ancient 

Rousseau’s philosophizing of sex originates in the failure of social 
and moral hierarchies in the late eighteenth century. Before the En¬ 
lightenment, rigid class stratification, however stultifying, provided a 
sense of community. Now identity, suddenly expanding, must find other 
means of definition. But sex is no substitute for metaphysics. Pascal 
says, “The tendency should be towards the general, and the bias to¬ 
wards self is the beginning of all disorder, in war, politics, economics, in 
man’s individual body.” 6 Sex was central to ancient mystery religions, 
but they had a coherent view of omnipotent nature, both violent and 
benign. Rousseau, the first fabricator of sexual identity, seeks freedom 
by banishing social hierarchies and worshipping a uniformly benev¬ 
olent nature. My theory: when political and religious authority weak¬ 
ens, hierarchy reasserts itself in sex, as the archaizing phenomenon of 

Rousseau versus Sade 


sadomasochism. Freedom makes new prisons. We cannot escape our 
life in these fascist bodies. Rousseau’s masochistic subordination to 
women comes from his overidealization of nature and emotion. Making 
honey, he stings himself. 

One cause of Rousseau’s simplistic nature-theory: there 
was no Faerie Queene in French literature to show the dangers of 
nature. Consequently, Sade arose, with all his horrors, to check Rous¬ 
seau’s happy hopes. Rousseau and Sade together equal the totality of 
Spenser. Spenser and Sade see the daemonism in sex and nature. The 
Marquis de Sade (1740—1814) is a great writer and philosopher whose 
absence from university curricula illustrates the timidity and hypocrisy 
of the liberal humanities. No education in the western tradition is 
complete without Sade. He must be confronted, in all his ugliness. 
Properly read, he is funny. Satirizing Rousseau, point by point, he 
prefigures the theories of aggression in Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud. 
Sade was prosecuted by both conservative and liberal governments and 
spent twenty-seven years in prison. His books were banned at publica¬ 
tion, but rare private editions influenced avant-garde French and En¬ 
glish writers throughout the nineteenth century. Sade’s complete sur¬ 
viving works were finally published in reliable form after World War II. 
French intellectuals embraced him as a poet-criminal in the style of 
Jean Genet, homosexual thief and jailbird. But Sade has made barely a 
dent on American adacemic consciousness. It is his violence far more 
them his sex which is so hard for liberals to accept. For Sade, sex is 
violence. Violence is the authentic spirit of mother nature. 

Sade is a transitional figure. His aristocratic libertines belong to the 
eighteenth-century novel of worldliness, like Laclos’ Les Liaisons dan - 
gereuses (1782). But Sade’s emphasis upon energy, instinct, and imagi¬ 
nation puts him squarely in Romanticism. He is writing in the same 
decade as Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Extending Rousseau’s 
idea of sexual identity, Sade makes sex a theater of pagan action. He 
drives a wedge between sex and emotion. Force, not love is the law of 
the universe, the highest pagan truth. Sade’s daemonic mother nature is 
the bloodiest goddess since Asiatic Cybele. Rousseau revives the Great 
Mother, but Sade restores her true ferocity. She is Darwin’s nature, red 
in tooth and claw. Simply follow nature, Rousseau declares. Sade 
laughing, grimly agrees. “Cruelty is natural,” he says in Philosophy in 
the Bedroom (1795). In Justine (1791), he calls nature our “common 
mother.” Sade’s world is ruled by a female titan: “No, there is no God, 


Return of the Great Mother 

Nature sufficeth unto herself; in no wise hath she need of an author.” 7 
The Great Mother, Sade’s supreme female character, begins and ends 

In Sade’s sacred rites, libertines flagellate, rape, and castrate their 
victims, then devour their bodies and drink their blood. Like Aztec 
priests, they vivisect, extracting the living heart. A product of the elegant 
French aristocracy, Sade primitivizes his own culture and makes it 
decadent. He mingles sex acts with assault and mutilation to show the 
latent brutality of sex. As in Freud, the sex instinct is amoral and 
egotistical. In Juliette (1797), answering Rousseau’s Julie , Sade says of 
lust, “It demands, it militates, it tyrannizes.” Sex is power. Sex and 
aggression so fuse that not only is sex murderous but murder is sexual. 
A woman declares: “Murder is a branch of erotic activity, one of its 
extravagances. The human being reaches the final paroxysm of delight 
only through an access of rage.” The orgasm is a burst of violence, “a 
kind of fury” showing nature’s intention that “behavior during copula¬ 
tion be the same as behavior in anger.” 8 Freud says the infant witness¬ 
ing the primal scene of parental intercourse thinks male is wounding 
female. Sade corrects Rousseau’s map of the past: Rousseau’s eroticism 
was shaped by Sadean subordination, not Rousseauist tenderness. The 
flagellated eight-year-old was an initiate into Sadean cult. 

Sade meshes his case against Rousseau with his case against Chris¬ 
tianity. Like Nietzsche, whom he clearly influenced, Sade attacks 
Christianity’s bias for the weak and outcast. By preserving the lowly, 
Christian pity “disrupts the natural order and perverts the natural law.” 
Dominance is the right of the strong. Against Christ and Rousseau, 
Sade says benevolence and “what fools call humaneness” have “noth¬ 
ing to do with Nature” but are “the fruit of civilization and fear.” The 
founder of Christianity was “some feeble individual,” “some puny 
wretch.” Sade dismisses Christian charity and Rousseau’s equality and 
fraternity as sentimental delusions. There are no social or moral obliga¬ 
tions for the philosopher: “He is alone in the universe.” 9 Because of his 
Romantic concentration on self, Sade’s libertines never permit love or 
friendship to survive. Loyalty is a temporary pact among criminal co¬ 

Humanity has no special status in the universe. Sade asks: “What is 
man? and what difference is there between him and other plants, 
between him and all the other animals of the world? None, obviously.” 
This is a classically Dionysian view of man’s immersion in organic 
nature. Judeo-Christianity elevates man above nature, but Sade, like 
Darwin, assigns him to the animal kingdom, subject to natural force. 

Rousseau versus Sade 

2 )7 

Vegetable too: man is soulless, “an absolutely material plant.” And 
mineral: Juliette says, “Man is in no wise Nature’s dependent; he is not 
even her child; he is her froth, her precipitated residue.” 10 Rousseau’s 
mother nature is Christian Madonna, lovingly enfolding her infant son. 
Sade’s mother nature is pagan cannibal, her dragon jaws dripping 
sperm and spittle. 

Since man has no privileges in Sade’s universe, human acts are 
“neither good nor bad intrinsically.” From nature’s point of view, mari¬ 
tal sex is no different from rape. To prove human benevolence a utopian 
theory contradicted by reality, Sade assembles a catalog of atrocities 
committed by every culture in history, often in the name of religion. His 
anthropological syncretism, anticipating Frazer’s, demonstrates the rel¬ 
ativism of sexual and criminal codes. Surprisingly, Sade’s abolition of 
civil and divine law does not lead to anarchy. The libertines establish 
their own rigorous structures, the natural hierarchy of strong and weak, 
master and slave. Whether Juliette's Sodality of the Friends of Crime or 
the vast School for Libertinage in 120 Days of Sodom, Sade’s libertines 
organize themselves into autonomous social units. They issue prospec¬ 
tuses and statutes, design formal architectural environments, and herd 
their victims into erotic classes and subsets. Like colonies of ants, they 
secrete systems. These things in Sade come from the Apollonian En¬ 
lightenment. As a Dionysian sexualist, Sade abolishes the great chain of 
being, sinking man into the continuum of nature, but he cannot shake 
off the intellectual hierarchism of his age. The libertines’ identity pre¬ 
cedes their cooperative clustering for debauchery. Personality in Sade is 
hard and impermeable—that is, Apollonian. There are no mysteries or 
ambiguities because nothing is left in the unconscious, whose most 
perverse fantasies empty into the cold light of consciousness. In Sade, 
Apollonian personality is plunged into Dionysian sewage but emerges 
clean and intact. 

Sade’s libertines are often double-sexed. Soft-figured males crave 
passive sodomy. Dolmance belongs to a third sex: with his “feminine 
manias,” the sodomite was created by nature to “diminish or minimize 
propagation.” Sade’s heroines are among the most potent women in 
literature, sister to Shakespeare’s bare-knuckles Cleopatra. Madame de 
Clairwil of Juliette and Madame de Saint-Ange of Philosophy in the 
Bedroom have extraordinary self-command and aristocratic presence. 
They match the male libertines in erudition and intellectual force. 
Clairwil (Apollonian “clear will”) combines “Minerva’ with “Venus.’ 
Her keen glance is “too fiery to withstand.” Juliette herself, through her 
voluminous adventures (1,193 pages), has a captivating freshness, re- 


Return of the Great Mother 

silience, and masculine willfulness. Sade’s female aggressors have Cle¬ 
opatra’s power of intimidation and attack, but they enact what Cleo¬ 
patra only imagines. Clairwil remarks, “Torturing males is still my 
favorite pastime.” Juliette admires Clairwil at play, “when I saw her 
daubing her cheeks with the victim’s blood, tasting it, drinking it, when 
I saw her bite into his flesh and tear it away with her teeth; when I saw 
her rub her clitoris on the bleeding wounds she opened in the wretch.” 
Another exploit: “The fierce creature opens the abdomen of the boy 
who has been entrusted to her, she tears out his heart and thrusts it hot 
into her cunt. . . . Clairwil sent up a howl of pleasure. ‘Juliette,’ she 
gasped, ‘Try it, Juliette, tiy it, there’s nothing to equal the sensation’.” 11 
Not since the Bacchae had there been so direct a transcription of dae¬ 
monic experience. Sade recreates the agony and ecstasy of ancient 
mystery religion. His female libertines are high priestesses of savage 
nature, doing her work day and night. 

Juliette calls herself “manlike in my tastes as in my thinking.” For her 
first crime, sexual assault upon and murder of a woman pedestrian, she 
dons men’s clothing, the sign of her burgeoning male will. She turns 
Rosalind’s transvestism into an executioner’s masked ball. Noirceuil 
enlists Juliette for transvestite double marriages, surpassing Nero’s. 
Dressed as a woman, Noirceuil marries a man; then dressed as a man, 
he marries a catamite dressed as a girl. Juliette, meanwhile, dresses as a 
man and marries a lesbian; then dressed as a woman, she marries a 
lesbian dressed as a man. A sexual maze. 

The masculinity of Sade’s women can be anatomical. Madame de 
Champville of 120 Days of Sodom and the beautiful nun Madame de 
Volmar of Juliette have three-inch clitorises. Madame Durand has an 
obstructed vagina and a clitoris “as long as a finger,” with which she 
forces sodomy on women and boys. In these ruthless penetrators, Sade 
creates a freakish new sexual persona: the female active sodomite. Sade 
and Baudelaire like lesbianism for its aura of the unnatural. The female 
squanders her reproductive energy upon herself. Sade finds lesbians 
superior to other women, “more original, more intelligent, more agree¬ 
able.” His lesbian couplings go on constantly all over Europe. The 
lesbian heroines imitate the “ceaseless flux and action” of nature. 
Plucky Juliette contrasts with her goody-goody sister Justine, much as 
Cleopatra does with shy Octavia. Every disaster and outrage comically 
befall patient, humble Justine. Virtue fails; vice prospers. I think that 
Justine is Rousseau and that Juliette is Sade. Virtue is “inert and 
passive,” but nature is “motion,” “active agitation.” 12 In Sade as in 
Spenser, pure femininity is a vacuum into which nature’s energy vio- 

Rousseau versus Sade 

2 )9 

lently rushes. Nature finally strikes Justine dead with a bolt of lightning. 
In Sade as in Blake, energy is male. Hence Sade’s great heroines are 
masculinized by their criminal vitality. 

Sade’s libertines retain Apollonian intellect in nature’s surging Di¬ 
onysian flux. Though Sade thinks men no different from plants, his 
characters contradict him by their long unplantlike speeches. In fact, 
they never stop talking. Learned disquisitions go on amid orgies, as in 
Philosophy in the Bedroom, with its rapid seesaw between theory and 
praxis. Cleopatra’s stormy speeches came from Dionysus’ link to lan¬ 
guage—hence the logophilia of Sade’s copulators. But there is no Di¬ 
onysian self-abandonment in Sade. Moderate delirium may occur at 
orgasm (Madame de Saint-Ange: “Aie! aie! aie!”), but words generally 
sail on through ejaculation. Sade’s sexual dissenters seek Dionysian 
lawlessness and abandon themselves to Dionysian fluids. Physiologic 
squalor, theme of Swift’s The Lady's Dressing Room, is minutely de¬ 
tailed in 120 Days of Sodom. Here are more excremental interludes 
than in any other Sade novel, not only coprophagy but lapping up of the 
most obscure bodily secretions. As in Whitman, identity is expanded 
and redefined by taking in life’s debris. To be sexually aroused by 
something eccentric, insignificant, or disgusting is a victory of imagina¬ 
tion. Sade demonstrates Dionysus’ promiscuous all-inclusiveness. He 
makes licking and sucking mental acts. Without the great chain of 
being, there is no hierarchic dignity or decorum. Sade’s libertines freely 
wallow in filth and find no humiliation in being flogged or sodomized in 
public. The excretory voiding of one person into the mouth of another is 
Dionysian monologue, a pagan oratory. 

Sade consigns the human body to the realm of Dionysian dis¬ 
memberments, scorned by Aeschylus’ Apollo as chthonian home of 
the Furies. The tortures invented by the libertines are of the form- 
pulverizing kind I found in Homer and Euripides. The libertines ea¬ 
gerly obliterate the body’s formal contours, tearing, piercing, scraping, 
gouging, maiming, slicing, shredding, burning, melting. Readers’ toler¬ 
ance for Sade’s barbaric fantasies will vary. Even I cannot stand many 
passages, despite my long study of the chthonian and, possibly more 
germane, a college summer as ward secretary of a downtown hospital 
emergency room. Don’t read Sade before lunch! Sade is subjecting the 
body to Dionysian process, reducing the human to raw matter and 
feeding it back to rapacious nature. 

Plutarch calls Dionysus “the Many.” Sadean sex is not democratic, 
but it always occurs in groups. Private rooms annex the sexual arena of 
120 Days of Sodom but seem merely ornamental. The libertines prefer 


Return of the Great Mother 

mob-frenzy, a Bacchic rout. Dionysus’ metamorphoses are in Sade’s 
roiling sex-action, inventing sexual personae and molding the body into 
new shapes. Men take masochistic roles and women rape and torture in 
order to destroy traditional sexual hierarchy. Paganism is restored and 
the hermaphroditic world of Roman orgy recreated. Sade wants to 
create an androgyne as perfect monster, combining as many perverse 
identities as possible. Sodomized as she rapes her mother, the ingenue 
Eugenie cheerfully cries, “Here I am: at one stroke incestuous, adul¬ 
teress, sodomite, and all that in a girl who only lost her maidenhead 
today!” Fornicating with her brother, Madame de Saint-Ange is sod¬ 
omized by Dolmance, who in turn is being sodomized by the gardener. 
She declares to Eugenie, “Behold, my love, behold all that I simulta¬ 
neously do: scandal, seduction, bad example, incest, adultery, sodomy!” 
Eugenie, an initiate into pagan mysteries, is catechized by her pre¬ 
ceptress, satirizing Rousseau’s progressivist theory of education. Sade 
concocts roles and experiences with Romantic audacity. In 120 Days of 
Sodom, the President de Curva! explores another variation: “In order to 
combine incest, adultery, sodomy, and sacrilege, he embuggers his 
married daughter with a Host.” Sade stirs affronts to the sacred into his 
stew. Again: “A notorious sodomist, in order to commit that crime with 
those of incest, murder, rape, sacrilege, and adultery, first inserts a Host 
in his ass, then has himself embuggered by his own son, rapes his 
married daughter, and kills his niece.” 13 The Sadean orgiast is intellec¬ 
tual and contortionist, a Laocoon entwined by his proliferating desires. 

Sade’s sexual conglomerations are like answers to a riddle: what is 
black and white and red all over? He produces them a posteriori (!) in 
response to the question, how may I outrage as many conventions as 
possible? They are prison puzzles worked out by ingenious wit, as in the 
ritualistic finale of As You Like It , where Rosalind makes herself the 
solution to a sexual conundrum. But note the difference between Re¬ 
naissance and Romantic imagination. Rosalind simplifies her superim¬ 
posed sexual identities to ensure social consolidation and progress. 
Sade crushes identity upon identity to demolish social structure. Ro¬ 
mantic incest, we will see, is a contraction of relationships. Incestuous 
inbreeding rules Sade’s sexual conglomerates. 

At a Naples revel, Juliette enjoys receiving “three pricks simulta¬ 
neously, two in the cunt, one in the ass”: 

There were several times when everybody forgathered upon a sin¬ 
gle woman. Thrice did I withstand the weight of that general 

assault. I was lying upon one man who was embuggering me; Elise, 

Rousseau versus Sade 


squatting over my face, gave me her pretty little cunt to suck; 
another man embuggered her above me, while frigging my cunt; 
and Raimonde was stimulating that man’s asshole with her tongue. 
Within reach of my two hands were Olympia to one side, on all 
fours, Clairwil to the other side: I introduced a prick into the 
asshole of each, and each of them sucked a prick belonging to the 
fifth and sixth man. The six valets, after having discharged eight 
times each, were finally received without difficulty. 14 

We see a gigantic complex sexual molecule with a female center. It is 
the writhing octopus of mother nature. Sade’s multisexed hybrid is like 
Scylla or Hydra or other chthonian horrors of Greek myth. Such gro¬ 
tesques in Spenser and Blake are always negative. But not in Sade, who 
substitutes sexual for social relations. His libertines swarm together in 
mutually exploitative units, then break apart into hostile atomies. Mul¬ 
tiplication, addition, division: Sade perverts the Enlightenment’s Apol¬ 
lonian mathematic. A schoolmaster’s voice: if six valets discharge eight 
times each, how many valets does it take to ... ? 

One of Sade’s most outlandish conjunctions occurs in a convent in 
Bologna. Juliette makes the unforgettable remark, “The Bolognese nun 
possesses the art of cunt-sucking in a higher degree than any other 
female on the European continent.” Sade parodies Diderot’s mag¬ 
isterial style, investigating, comparing, concluding. 

Delicious creatures! I shall ever sing your memory. . . . It was there, 
my friends, that I executed what Italian women call the rosary: all 
fitted out with dildoes and gathered in a great hall, we would 
thread ourselves one to the next, there would be a hundred on the 
chain; through those who were tall it ran by the cunt, by the ass 
through those who were short; an elder was placed at each novena, 
they were the paternoster beads and had the right to speak: they 
gave the signal for discharges, directed the movements and evolu¬ 
tions, and presided in general over the order of those unusual 
orgies. 15 

A hundred nuns linked by dildos! The style of Busby Berkeley or the 
Radio City Rockettes, The holy rosary becomes the primeval uroboros, 
a vicious circle. Human connectedness is sexually literalized. The or- 
giast nuns are like a polysyllabic Greek or German noun, spawning 
prefixes and suffixes and hyphenated by dildos. As a man of the En¬ 
lightenment, Sade organizes Dionysian experience into Apollonian 
patterns, punctuated by hierarchical speech. 

2 42 

Return of the Great Mother 

Sade’s Dionysian modes are multiplicity and metamorphosis. Dol- 
mance urges Eugenie “to multiply those excesses even to beyond the 
possible,” a Romantic formulation. An abbess tells Juliette, “Variety, 
multiplicity are the two most powerful vehicles of lust.” Madame de 
Saint-Ange explains the boudoir’s many mirrors: “By repeating our 
attitudes and postures in a thousand different ways, they infinitely 
multiply those same pleasures for the persons seated here upon this 
ottoman. Thus everything is visible, no part of the body can remain 
hidden: everything must be seen.” Madame de Saint-Ange is voyeur 
and cubist, dividing the body into parts spread across a single screen of 
vision. In Sade, the aggressive Apollonian eye never loses its power. He 
creates a night of morality but never of sight. Noirceuil, echoing Ovid, 
counsels wives, “Metamorphose yourselves, assume many roles, play at 
this sex and that.” 16 

Dionysian metamorphosis is obvious in the transvestite and transsex¬ 
ual episodes. A roue wants to be spanked by “a man got up as a girl,” a 
“masculine flagellatrice” called “she.” The Due de Blangis, kissing a 
boy, is suddenly sodomized: “Virtually without noticing it, he changed 
sex.” Transsexual operations are brutally improvised: “After having 
sheared off the boy’s prick and balls, using a red-hot iron he hollows out 
a cunt in the place formerly occupied by his genitals; the iron makes the 
hole and cauterizes simultaneously: he fucks the patient’s new orifice 
and strangles him with his hands upon discharging.” The libertines 
practice daemonic medicine. Another transsexual experiment, with 
organ transplants: “A sodomist: rips the intestines from a young boy and 
a young girl, puts the boy’s into the girl, inserts the girl’s into the boy’s 
body, stitches up the incisions, ties them back to back to a pillar which 
supports them both, and he watches them perish.” 17 Remember, these 
are ideas, not acts. Sade isolates the aggression in the western scientific 
mind. And he demonstrates (my constant theme) the sexual character 
of western seeing. Sade plays Darwinian mother nature, mutating gen¬ 
der and cross-fertilizing with heavy hands. Like her, he makes manure 
and loam out of humanity. 

So identity in Sade, as in Romanticism, comes not from society but 
from the daemonized self. But Sade differs from the more passive 
Romantics (except Blake) in making identity arise from action, for 
libertine and victim alike. One originates an act, and the other suffers it. 
The context of Sadean identity is dramaturgical. There are always 
“tableaux” and “dramatic spectacles” of interlaced bodies, of which 
people make witty aesthetic judgments. Theatricality is blatant in mod¬ 
em sadomasochism, with its costumes, stage props, and scripts. Sado- 

Rousseau versus Sade 

2 43 

masochism, I suggested, is a symptom of cultural thirst for hierarchy. 
Religion is misguided when it relaxes its ritualism. The imagination 
longs for subordination and will seek it elsewhere. Sade, a philosophe 
casting the church out of his universe, ends by making sex a new 
religion. His lavish sexual ritualism dramatizes the natural hierarchism 
of sex—a hierarchism having nothing to do with social custom, for 
women can be masters and men slaves. Sadomasochism is coldly for¬ 
mal, a condensed expression of the biologic structure of sex-experience. 
In every orgasm there is domination or surrender, open at all times to 
both sexes, in groups, pairs, or alone. Richard Tristman remarked to 
me, “All sexuality entails some degree of theater.” Sex contains an 
element of the abstract and transpersonal, which only sadomasochism 
forthrightly acknowledges. Tristman continued: “All sexual relations 
involve relations of dominance. The desire for equality in women is 
probably an attenuated expression of the desire to dominate.” Hailed in 
the Sixties as a sexual liberator, Sade is actually the most scholarly 
documenter of sex’s subjection to hierarchical orders. 

The theatricality of Sade’s libertines comes from their clarity of con¬ 
sciousness. Daydreaming or introspection is unneeded in a world where 
realization immediately follows desire. The libertines are like Roman 
emperors in wealth and power, two things, as Sade observes, which give 
absolute sexual control over others. Like Blake, Sade exalts Romantic 
imagination, the source of wish and therefore fulfillment: “The imagi¬ 
nation’s fire must set the furnace of the senses alight.” Free imagination 
is able “to forge, to weave, to create new fantasies.” Juliette declares, 
“The imagination is the only cradle where pleasures are bom.” Without 
it, “all that remains is the physical act, dull, gross, and brutish.” 18 Sade’s 
biggest erogenous zone is the mind. His works, like Genet’s, are auto¬ 
erotic prison dreams creating a perverse universe of new sensations and 
sexes. Sade is the cosmogonic Khepera, eternally renewing his lust. 
Masturbation is his motivating principle. 

In 120 Days of Sodom, with its Decameron -like format, the compul¬ 
sion to find fresh sexual rituals to stimulate orgasm appears in the 
numbered lists of the final sections, still in draft when the manuscript 
disappeared in the storming of the Bastille. Sade invents an astonishing 
series of short sexual scripts isolating the drama of subordination, 
fantasies stripped down to their skeletal hierarchical structure. Each 
has a date and number. The lists are part journal, saints’ calendar, epic 
catalog, Apollonian calculus. 

We may sense the eroticism in this, even if we fail to share its appeal: 
“The 22nd of December. 109. He mbs a naked girl with honey, then 


Return of the Great Mother 

binds her to a column and releases upon her a swarm of large flies.” St. 
Sebastian becomes the seething hive of Ephesian mother nature. Other 
scenarios are more puzzling. “Has her run naked about a garden at 
night, the season is winter, the weather freezing; here and there are 
stretched cords upon which she trips and falls.” Or: “He holds the girl 
by the ears and walks her around the room, discharging as he parades 
with her.” The imagery is of malice and sabotage, hunt and trophy. The 
girl is a flayed coney run to earth. Sade’s scripts can be disarmingly 
mild: “Has a woman with beautiful hair brought to him, saying he 
simply wishes to examine her hair; but he cuts if off very traitorously 
and discharges upon seeing her melt into tears and bewail her misfor¬ 
tune, at which he laughs immoderately.” 19 This is Spenserian masque, 
a public spectacle eroticized by juxtaposing feminine vulnerability with 
icy, lustful hierarchic power. 

Sade’s precision gives his fantasies a comic gratuitousness: “He pulls 
out her teeth and scratches her gums with needles. Sometimes he heats 
the needles.” Hot needles are the least of her problems. Sade’s self- 
satirizing decadent style belongs to an eighteenth-century fin de siecle. 
There are Swiftian sallies: “The 17th of February. 90. A bugger cooks 
up a little girl in a double boiler.” The pot gleams with recipe-like 
professionalism. My favorite recalls Alice introduced to the plum pud¬ 
ding: “He binds the girl belly down upon a dining table and eats a 
piping hot omelette served upon her buttocks. He uses an exceedingly 
sharp fork.” 20 Heated needles, double boiler, ticklish tines: the eye is 
drawn in by increasing specificity of detail until we find ourselves 
poring over a grotesque scene with scientific absorption. Sade’s epicene 
wit allies him with Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde. The lists of 720 Days 
of Sodom are like a roster of outrageous Wildean epigrams. 

The theater director of 120 Days of Sodom is male, but in Sade’s work 
as a whole, females are not more abused than males. Sade and Blake 
grant women the sexual freedom of men. Though he honors his great 
female libertines, Sade detests procreative woman. Pregnant women 
are tortured, forced to abort, or crushed together on iron wheels. Ma¬ 
dame de Saint-Ange tells Eugenie, “I declare to you, I hold generation 
in such horror I should cease to be your friend the instant you were to 
become pregnant.” Madame Delbene urges Juliette, “Do not breed.” A 
statute of the Sodality of the Friends of Crime is, “True libertinage 
abhors progeniture.” The three major figures of Philosophy in the Bed¬ 
room detest their mothers. The novella ends in a ritualistic assault upon 
a mother, Madame de Mistival, who comes to rescue her daughter 

Rousseau versus Sade 

2 4S 

Eugenie from her corrupters. Instead, Mistival is raped, flogged, and 
infected vaginally and anally by a syphilitic valet. Then vagina and 
rectum are sewn up with “a heavy red waxed thread.” 21 Needlework 
torture occurs elsewhere in Sade, but nowhere so emphatically. Only 
here is the thread red, hinting at the arterial and umbilical. The scene 
looks forward to Huysmans’ archetypal dream of mother nature, where 
female genitalia turn into syphilitic flower. 

Sade is seeking a female equivalent to castration. How does one 
desex a woman without dismembering and therefore killing her? In 120 
Days of Sodom the Due de Blangis attempts such an operation, disor¬ 
dering a woman’s entrails by piercing the vaginal, intestinal, and gastric 
walls. But in Philosophy in the Bedroom Sade wants to androgynize the 
procreative female and send her back into the world in humiliating 
sterility. Similar symbolic action was at work in Jack the Ripper’s extrac¬ 
tion and public nailing up of the uterus of his victims. I suspect Sade is a 
bit vague about female sexual anatomy; otherwise, he would surely 
have splattered such impromptu hysterectomies all over his work. Muti¬ 
lation of female genitals, reported to this day throughout the world, 
descends from ancient perceptions of the uncanniness of female fertil¬ 
ity. Jung says, “Occasionally it still happens that the natives in the bush 
kill a woman and take out her uterus, in order to make use of this organ 
in magical rites.” 22 Such things arise not from social prejudice but from 
legitimate fear of woman’s alliance with chthonian nature. 

The female body is often ridiculed in Sade. Two effeminate homosex¬ 
ual minions strip Justine and laugh uproariously at her genitals: “Noth¬ 
ing nastier than that hole.” A man in Juliette calls female genitals an 
“unclean, fetid gulf.” The female bosom is lustfully admired by Sade’s 
lesbians, but it leaves many males cold. In 120 Days of Sodom a priapic 
gentleman rebukes Madame Duclos: “ ‘Devil take those damned tits of 
yours,’ he cried; ‘who asked you for tits? That’s what I can’t bear about 
these creatures, every single impudent one of them is wild to show you 
her miserable bubs’.” 25 Breasts often appear only to be flailed and cut to 
ribbons—or in one case severed and fried on a gnddle. But before we 
condemn Sade, think of Tiepolo’s painting, The Martyrdom of Saint 
Agatha (1750). The saint ecstatically expires, eyes raised to heaven, 
while her bloody amputated breasts are collected for us by an insouciant 
pageboy hefting a silver platter. Are we expected to vomit or eat? For two 
thousand years, the torture of martyred saints, as well as of Christ, has 
filled western imagination with sadomasochistic reverie. Adolescent 
Yukio Mishima had his first orgasm upon seeing a copy of Guido Reni’s 


Return of the Great Mother 

St Sebastian. The sex and violence in Christian iconography are an 
eruption of pagan mystery religion, of which Christianity is a develop¬ 

Sade believes the female body less beautiful than the male. Compare 
a naked man and woman: “You will be obliged to conclude that woman 
is simply man in an extraordinarily degraded form.” 24 Like Michelan¬ 
gelo, Sade admires muscular articulation, the Blakean correlate of his 
Romantic energy. De Beauvoir and Barthes connect Sade’s devaluation 
of the female body to his homosexual craving for sodomy. 25 But sexual 
symbolism is greater than private habits. Sodomy is Sade’s rational 
protest against relentlessly overabundant procreative nature. Dog-style 
heterosexual copulation, a staple of current pornography, represents the 
animality and impersonality of sex-experience. When face is averted 
from face, emotion and society are annihilated. Remember the masked 
face of the Venus of Willendorf. The zippered leather mask of modem 
sadomasochistic gear covers the whole head and primitivizes the per¬ 
sonality. Sodomy’s ritual significance appears in a myth recorded by 
Clement of Alexandria. As a reward for directions to the underworld, 
Dionysus promises to sodomize Proshymnos. But when the god returns, 
Proshymnos is dead. To fulfill his vow, Dionysus anally penetrates the 
corpse with a branch carved like a penis. Sodomy is imagined as ritual 
entrance to the underworld, symbolized by man’s bowels. 

The ritual sex acts of ancient earth-cult were meant to stimulate 
nature’s fertility. Sodomy in Sade blocks the procreative. Like Blake, 
Sade brings the Great Mother into being as an act of hostility. The 
campaign against Madame de Mistival begins with Dolmance’s procla¬ 
mation, “We owe absolutely nothing to our mothers.” After Harold 
Bloom’s study of male poetic strife in The Anxiety of Influence , it is 
impossible to read such a statement without hearing its real meaning: 
“We owe absolutely everything to our mothers.” Sade’s works ritualize 
sex on a gigantic scale. If a ritual relieves anxiety, Sade’s sadomasochis¬ 
tic inventions are modes of distancing by which male imagination tries 
to free itself from female origins. Again, there are parallels with Blake. 
Jane Harrison says, “Man cannot escape being born of woman, but he 
can, and if he is wise, will, as soon as he comes to manhood, perform 
ceremonies of riddance and purgation.” 26 Sade’s obsessive sodomy is a 
ritual of riddance to evade maternal power. 

Hence Sade alternately celebrates and reviles woman. He gives his 
intellectual female libertines another male prerogative, in defiance of 
reality: the passion for sexual atrocities. Anyone can see, just by reading 
the newspaper, that men commit sex-crimes and women do not. The 

Rousseau versus Sade 


feminist idea that sexual violence is caused by the social denigration of 
women is disproved by the many cases of homosexual torture and rape- 
murder of boys by the dozen. Sex-crimes arise less from environmental 
conditioning than from a failure of socialization. Mutilating crimes by 
women are extremely rare. There are the Papin sisters, whose massacre 
of their employers inspired Genet’s The Maids . After that we are at a 
loss, driven as far back as ax-wielding Lizzie Borden, who may have 
gotten a raw deal. As for what Sade calls “lust-murder” or “venereal 
murder”—homicide that stimulates orgasm or is a substitute for it—I 
beg for female nominees. One of history’s most intriguing women, 
Hungarian Countess Erzsebet Bathory (1560—1614), the prototypical 
lesbian vampire of horror films, may have been sexually aroused in her 
torture and murder of 610 maidens, but rumor reports only that she 
bathed in their blood to preserve her youth. As Freud says, “Women 
show little need to degrade the sexual object.” 27 

Serial or sex murder, like fetishism, is a perversion of male intel¬ 
ligence. It is a criminal abstraction, masculine in its deranged egotism 
and orderliness. It is the asocial equivalent of philosophy, mathematics, 
and music. There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack 
the Ripper. Sade has spectacularly enlarged female character. The 
barbarism of Madame de Clairwil, orgasmically rending her victims 
limb from limb, is the sign of her greater conceptual power. Sade’s 
female sex-criminals are Belles Dames Sans Merci of early Romanti¬ 
cism. The Romantic femmes fatales will be silent, nocturnal, lit by their 
own daemonic minimal eye. But Sade’s women, inveterate talkers, retain 
the clear Apollonian solar eye of western intellect. 

Sade’s enormous influence upon Decadent Late Romanticism has 
not been fully studied. His importance is demonstrated by Mario Praz 
in “The Shadow of the Divine Marquis” in The Romantic Agony ( 1933), 
a major book shunned by most critics as simplistic and sensational. 
Baudelaire and Swinburne stress their debt to Sade, who prefigures 
Decadent sensibility in several ways. He finds beauty in the horrible and 
revolting. Like the Roman emperors, he juxtaposes artificiality and 
sophistication with chthonian barbarism. His libertines are ‘"indifferent 
to everything simple and commonplace,” a Decadent phrase. 28 The 
libertines are always self-immured, a Decadent claustrophobia. We will 
find a parallel in the imprisoned spaces of the Gothic novel, which reach 
the Decadence through Poe. Sade’s corpse-strewn sexual arenas resem¬ 
ble the Gothic morgue. These heaps of rotting matter are the accumu¬ 
lated objects of nature and society which I see oppressing Romantic 

Amazons, Mothers, Ghosts 

Goethe to Gothic 

The young Goethe, a disciple of Rousseau, begins Ger¬ 
man literary self-consciousness in a welter of sexual ambiguities. Like 
Sade, Goethe is a transitional figure, half classic, half Romantic. A new 
Renaissance man, he sought mastery of all arts and sciences. By the end 
of his long life he was the cultural leader of Europe, as Voltaire had been 
in the eighteenth century. Biography long ago established Goethe’s 
sexual eccentricities and amoral titanism of will. But too much of the 
vast scholarship on Goethe’s poems, plays, and novels is stultifyingly 
dull, paralyzed by reverence. No other writer of this rank suffers so 
gaping a rift between biography and criticism. 

Goethe’s novella The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) gave the Sturm 
und Drang school, with its Rousseauist sensibility, an international 
impact. Werther, to whom Goethe gives his own birthday, is Rousseau’s 
emotional feminized male, pale, melancholy, tearful. He is the moody 
double-sexed adolescent first documented by Shakespeare. Romantic 
adolescence has spiritual superiority. For Werther, childhood is beauti¬ 
ful and pure, while masculine adulthood is sordid and debased; so 
refusing to grow up is noble. Werther clings to his feminine mood-states 
to defeat time and gender. 

The Sorrows of Young Werther ends in the hero’s suicide, which started 
a vogue for real suicides throughout Europe. This was the first salvo of 
Romantic youth-cult, to return in our own frenetic 1960s. I attribute 
these suicides to the shift in sexual personae at the close of the eigh¬ 
teenth century. Theodore Faithfull says in another context, “Dreams of 
self-destruction, and probably many cases of suicide, are desires or 
attempts on the part of narcissistic individuals to give themselves a new 
birth by sexually attacking themselves and thus bringing about self- 


Goethe to Gothic 


fertilization.” 1 Werther-style suicide had an aggressive autoeroticism, 
glamourizing an act that the Church condemns as the gravest sin. 
Werther’s Rousseauist emotionalism is self-dissolving: “My powers of 
expression are weak and everything is so hazy in my mind that all 
contours seem to elude me.” 2 The Enlightenment’s sharp Apollonian 
lines disappear in Dionysian mist. Werther is like Shakespeare’s suici¬ 
dal Antony, whose identity shifts like clouds. The Sorrows of Young 
Werther demonstrates how Rousseauist sensibility acted as an alchemic 
bath, hermaphrodizing the European male persona in emotional fluid¬ 
ity. Like Rousseau, Werther worships the earth mother, in whose lap he 
dies. His suicide is strongly ritualistic: the pistols must pass through the 
daemonizing hands of Lotte, a pleasant maiden whom Werther turns 
into a Romantic femme fatale. Goethe said the novel came from “the 
decision to let my inner self rule me at will” and to let outside events 
“penetrate.” 3 In Romantic creativity, the male waits in spiritual passivity, 
acted upon by internal and external forces. The feminized inner self is 
the Muse who becomes increasingly ferocious as Romanticism goes on. 

Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1796) is a tangle of sexual problem¬ 
atics. Goethe’s novel begins the tradition of the Bildungsroman or novel 
of education, the story of a young man’s development, modelled on 
Rousseau’s Confessions. A feminized male is the center of The Sorrows 
of Young Werther , but Wilhelm Meister is dominated by masculine 
women. The novel opens with transvestism: an actress steps offstage in 
male military dress, with sword. She refuses to change clothes, since she 
has a rendezvous with Wilhelm Meister, whom Goethe called his “dra¬ 
matic likeness.” Like Balzac’s Sarrasine and Wilde’s Dorian Gray, 
Wilhelm has fallen in love with a stage persona, whose red uniform he 
clasps with fetishistic “rapture.” 4 Female transvestism is everywhere in 
Wilhelm Meister ; from Tasso’s warrior Clorinda to women disguising 
themselves as pages and hunter-boys. 

The novel has a mysterious “Amazon” who finds Wilhelm lying 
wounded by bandits. The shape of the radiant “angel” is concealed by a 
man’s white great coat, which she ritualistically lays upon him. This 
light-shedding Apollonian androgyne, suddenly appearing in a forest, 
resembles Spenser’s Amazon huntress Belphoebe, whose roots are in 
Ariosto and Tasso. Wilhelm becomes obsessed with her, replaying her 
epiphany in his dreams. When she becomes a real and intelligent person 
at novel’s end, the Amazon loses her glamour. This pattern of declension 
is common in works with sexually ambiguous themes, like Virginia 
Woolf’s Orlando and Mrs. Dalloway. The Amazon’s magnetism comes 
only from her mystical androgyny. Wilhelm Meister's transvestism is so 

2 JO 

Amazons, Mothers, Ghosts 

pronounced that the hero mistakes a real soldier for a woman. Another 
actress carries a dagger, the “faithful friend” which is her totemic male 
self. She kisses it and tucks it in her bosom or whips it around, cutting 
Wilhelm. Wilhelm Meister is not as feminine as Werther, but Goethe 
swamps him sexually by surrounding him with viragos and transvestites. 
Wilhelm speaks for his creator in saying that “the novel-hero” must 
suffer, while the dramatic hero should act and achieve. 5 Even in action, 
like Werther’s suicide, Goethe’s novel-heroes seek self-subordination. 
Goethe hastens the evolution of Rousseauist sensibility into Romantic 

The star transvestite of Wilhelm Meister is Mignon, whom Georg 
Lukacs calls “the very embodiment of the romantic spirit” and Victor 
Lange the “most exquisite embodiment of Romantic lyricism.” 6 When 
Wilhelm first sees her, the adolescent Mignon is in male dress, and he 
cannot guess her gender. She is an “enigma” with a magical fascination 
for him. Her name has erotic associations: the French “mignon,” 
whence our “minion,” means “favorite” or “darling” in female prostitu¬ 
tion and male homosexuality. Although she is in the novel’s earliest 
manuscript, Mignon resembles a boyish Venetian acrobat whom Goe¬ 
the saw in Italy in 1790. “Neither male nor female,” Mignon is fanatical 
about her transvestism. She passionately rejects female clothing: “I am 
a boy, I will be no girl!” 7 After playing an angel in a pageant, she refuses 
to surrender her seraph’s robe. Two dozen pages later, she is dead, after 
becoming more and more attenuated and etherealized as a character: 
she loses vital energy when she abandons male clothing. At the funeral, 
her body is laid out in her winged angel’s costume. The service is a 
masque, with recitations by boys in Apollonian azure and silver. 

Mignon conforms to two categories of the androgyne. She is the 
beautiful boy, the Apollonian angel, but she is also a negative or af¬ 
flicted Mercurius, the volatile shape-shifter. Mignon’s early death is 
foreshadowed in her unnatural excitation. When Wilhelm meets her, 
she “darted like lightning through the door”: “She never walked up or 
down the stairs, but jumped. She would spring along by the railing, and 
before you were aware, would be sitting quietly above upon the land¬ 
ing.” She dances “lightly, nimbly, quickly.” Mignon sounds like Shake¬ 
speare’s antic Ariel, but there is something disturbingly pathological in 
her energy. She has palpitations and fits, a worsening “spasmodic vi¬ 
vacity” or “restless stillness.” She constantly twists or chews thread, 
napkins, paper, as if to drain “some inward violent commotion.” She is 
alarmingly “frantic with gayety”; hair flying, she raves and capers like a 

Goethe to Gothic 


“Maenad.” 8 Mignon finally falls dead from a heart spasm. The Diony¬ 
sian Mercurius dances herself to death. 

In her emotional purity and intensity, Mignon is an early version of 
Faust's Euphorion, the symbol of poetry modelled on Byron. Euphorion 
too is agitated and volatile, but Mignon is more feverish and hysterical. I 
call her Goethe’s Euphoria, after the uncontrollable “up” phase of 
manic-depression. Shakespeare’s Rosalind is the perfected Mercurius 
of mercurial wit and multiple personae. The afflicted Mercurius is like 
Byron’s mistress, Lady Caroline Lamb. Sometimes appearing in page¬ 
boy or other male dress, Lady Caroline was notorious for her mad 
nervous energy and exhibitionistic pranks. She smashed china in her 
rages; she was publicly self-destructive, as when, jealous of Byron, she 
shattered a wineglass in her hands. Byron called her “Little Mania.” 
Dangerous to herself and others, she died prematurely, like Mignon. 
Lady Caroline was androgynous in her willfulness, transvestism, and 
adolescent body-type. Her excessive thinness went against contempo¬ 
rary fashion: besieged by her after his ardor had cooled, Byron declared, 
“I am haunted by a skeleton.” 

Though Mignon is more innocent than the calculating Lady Caroline 
Lamb, the two have the same hyperactivity and spasmodic tension. In 
her mobile charm, Mignon is like Tolstoy’s mischievous Natasha, who 
appears once in War and Peace in a mustache. In Rosalind as Mer¬ 
curius, language is developed to its maximum. But Mignon is a Mer¬ 
curius of silence: “Often for the whole day she was mute.” 9 Even from 
childhood, “she could not express herself” with words. This muteness is 
Mignon’s Apollonian side, which she shares with Spenser’s Belphoebe, 
with her broken sentences, Melville’s stammering Billy Budd, and 
Thomas Mann’s dreamy Tadzio. Another afflicted Mercurius: Edie 
Sedgwick, the short-lived blonde socialite and Andy Warhol superstar 
who, like Lady Caroline, was childish, boyish, angelic, monstrous, and 
self-destructive, constantly dancing or setting her bed and hotel afire. 
Next, the affected aspiring actress Gloria (Barbara Steele) in Fellini’s 
8V2, wearing out her aging lover by her madcap dancing, poetic rap¬ 
tures, and hysterical mood-swings. 

Not until the end of Wilhelm Meister do we learn that Mignon was 
bom of the incest of brother and sister. Incest, defended here, is to 
become the paradigm of Romantic sexuality. Mignon’s parents men¬ 
tally deteriorate. An “Apparition” appears, “a beautiful boy standing at 
the foot of their bed and holding a bare knife.” 10 This avenging angel of 
the guilt-ridden unconscious prefigures the doomed transvestite Mig- 

2J 2 

Amazons, Mothers, Ghosts 

non. Stationed at the bed of sin, the boy-spirit is like Rosalind’s double, 
Hymen, the hovering marriage-idea. Mignon’s death is analogous to 
the Amazon’s loss of glamour when she regains her social identity. Like 
As You Like It and Twelfth Night , Wilhelm Meister consigns the romance 
of transvestism to spiritual adolescence. Wilhelm enters maturity by 
renouncing the theater, arena of impersonations. For Wilhelm to ad¬ 
vance from apprentice to master of life, the novel must sacrifice his in¬ 
separable companion, Mignon. She is an extemalization of his double- 
sexed adolescence. Her death is equivalent to Rosalind and Viola killing 
off Ganymede and Cesario, the transvestite heroines’ male alter egos. 
Wilhelm’s new concern for permanence and continuity comes from 
Goethe’s neoclassic side. Wilhelm becomes “father” and “citizen.” 
Like Empress Plotina, he rejects multiple personae for the stable, uni¬ 
tary persona that is the basis of civic order. Like Shakespeare’s trans¬ 
vestite comedies (surely Goethe’s inspiration), Wilheim Meister ends 
with the setting aside of masquerades and the rediverting of psychic 
energy into society. 

Goethe’s Mignon had a long and unacknowledged influence on 
nineteenth-century literature. I think she is the source, ultimately for¬ 
gotten, of a series of Romantic and Late Romantic androgynes. An 
untranslated and now obscure work, Henri de Latouche’s Fragoletta 
(1829), takes up Wilhelm MeisteFs motif of female transvestism and 
transmits it to two writers strongly influenced by la Touche, Balzac and 
Gautier. Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin , inspired by Fragoletta , 
becomes the first bible of the French and English Decadence. In the 
manuscript of Wilhelm MeisteFs Apprenticeship , found early this cen¬ 
tury, Mignon’s sexual ambiguity went beyond transvestism. Goethe 
calls her sometimes “she,” sometimes “he,” a witty subtlety suppressed 
in earlier editions (including Thomas Carlyle’s still-sold translation) 
because it was thought an error. In the sequel, Wilhelm MeisteFs Trav¬ 
els , Goethe calls Mignon “boy-girl” and “pseudo-boy.” Mignon should 
be credited to Shakespeare’s enduring continental influence. Gautier 
rejoins the female transvestite to her source in As You Like It , performed 
by his characters as a mime of their own gender confusion. 

In the Venetian Epigrams , ancestor of Mann’s Death in Venice , Goethe 
celebrates the Mignon-like acrobat, Bettina. He accepts as his own his 
novel-heroes’ fascination with the perverse. Goethe sees Bettina as an 
incarnation of the beautiful boys or “cherubim” of Italian Renaissance 
painting (Epigram 36). He compares her to Ganymede, whom he as 
king of the gods covets (38). Performing, Bettina plunges the admiring 
observer into dreamlike uncertainty and doubt: “Everything hovers in 

Goethe to Gothic 

2 53 

space in unstable form. / So Bettina confuses us, twisting her beautiful 
limbs” (41). 11 Bettina is sexually and morphologically ambiguous. Her 
acrobatic dexterity makes Goethe question her species: she is mollusk, 
fish, reptile, bird, human, angel (37). Mobile Bettina represents both 
Apollonian ideal beauty and Dionysian metamorphosis. She violates all 

One of the Venetian Epigrams suppressed because of their frank 
sexual content is about Bettina: “What worries me most is that Bettina 
grows always more skillful, / Always more supple becomes every joint in 
her frame; / At last she’ll bring her little tongue into her dainty slit; / 
She’ll play with her charming self, lose all interest in men” (34). 12 
Goethe the voyeur imagines Bettina acrobatically masturbating, like 
Catullus’ autofellating sleazebag, Gellius. Bettina becomes a Romantic 
circle of incest and narcissism. She is the uroboros devouring itself or 
the Egyptian sky goddess arching backwards. She is sexually complete 
and self-embowered, like Blake’s autoerotic “Sick Rose.” Visually, she 
resembles Blake’s engravings of solipsistically contorted figures. Goe¬ 
the invents an autonomous, rapacious female sexuality. He is merely a 
spectator at a pagan ritual. Man is on the periphery, woman at the 
center. In the next epigram, Goethe predicts Bettina’s first lover will find 
her acrobatics have torn her hymen. She has, in other words, the mas¬ 
culine power to deflower herself. Bettina is hardier and uncannier than 
Mignon. Her serpentine limbs slink into and bind Goethe’s strange 
sexual imagination. In her flaunting exhibitionism, she is like baby 
mother nature at play. 

Faust , Goethe’s contribution to world literature, joins the 
Renaissance to Romanticism. Not since Hamlet , which influenced this 
play, had there been so searching an analysis of the moral and sexual 
ambiguities of western consciousness. The historical Doctor Faustus 
was an unscrupulous magician denounced by his contemporary, Martin 
Luther. The first Faustbook (1587), condemning Faust for his intellec¬ 
tual hybris, shows Protestantism awakened against the dangers of Re¬ 
naissance paganism. Goethe expands the sexual commentary in the 
Faust story. The western mind is seen as sex and power, striving against 
God and nature. Don Juan and Faust are the most characteristic myths 
of the postclassical west. They represent dominance, aggression, the 
will-to-power, all the imperial ambitions of paganism that Christianity 
has never been able to defeat. 

Faust is Goethe, the artist as magus, just as Mephistopheles is Goe¬ 
the, the artist as enemy of God. As a Renaissance alchemist, Faust seeks 

2 S 4 

Amazons, Mothers, Ghosts 

the secrets of nature. What Goethe has added to the story is the seduc¬ 
tion theme, borrowed from Don Juan and Casanova. In Marlowe’s 
Doctor Faustus (1593), Helen of Troy, summoned for Faust’s delecta¬ 
tion, is a majestic love goddess. Goethe’s Ophelia-like Gretchen, on the 
other hand, is the humble handmaiden in a saga of lust, violation, guilt, 
and remorse. Goethe makes an analogy between the exploitation of 
women by men and the exploitation of nature by the self-infatuated 
western mind. Here Goethe parallels Blake, who is the first to protest 
against the industrial corruption and pollution of green England. 

Faust shows sex as a mode of western knowledge and control. 
Gretchen, the lamblike feminine innocent, is physically and morally 
ruined, ending in infanticide. Her illicit intercourse with Faust implants 
her with western aggression. Seduction is an intellectual game. It is the 
invasion of one hierarchy by another. By creating sacred spaces apart 
from nature, the west invites their despoilment. Like Spenser’s Flo- 
rimell, Gretchen induces destruction by her own passivity and defense¬ 
lessness. Goethe exalts the feminine principle and makes Gretchen a 
redeemed martyr, but like all great artists he is ambivalent toward his 
own moral constructions. Faust in league with Mephistopheles Is Goe¬ 
the yielding to his own cannibal impulses. 

The west’s will-to-power has created our perverse dynamics of will¬ 
ing. The rapist says, she wanted it, she asked for it. This conviction is 
produced by the separation and tension between sexual personae. She 
who may or may not ask for it is a real person, with a sharp identity. The 
defeat of her will is part of the thrill of seduction or rape. Coercion 
requires free will, in both homosexual and heterosexual acts. Faust’s 
seduction of Gretchen is intrusion, trespass, criminal entry into posted 
space. This is one of the west’s premiere sexual tropes, intensified by our 
categorizations and hierarchic rankings. In classical antiquity, immod¬ 
erate lust was priapism, which was, like drunkenness, the fault of fools 
and satyrs. Christianity’s animus against sex and its stark polarity of 
good versus evil intellectualized lust and raised its significance. Lust is a 
crossing of the gap between western sexual personae. Lust sharpens the 
aggressive, predatory western eye, making it prelude and coda of touch. 
Faust and Mephistopheles, watching, are voyeurs at Gretchen’s stalk¬ 
ing, capture, soiling, and imprisonment. 

Faust , a play with an alchemist hero, has a diffuse alchemical form. It 
has two parts, a multitude of episodes, and a crowd of minor characters. 
It combines classical with Christian culture. It mixes tragedy with com¬ 
edy, epic with lyric, ideal beauty with the grotesque and obscene. 
Gretchen is naive sentiment, Mephistopheles cynical sophistication. 

Goethe to Gothic 


Faust is caught in the middle, like all mankind. Faust has a variety of 
sexual personae, more than any other work of major literature. Goethe 
inserts Romantic androgynes into the traditional Faust story. Faust’s 
acquisitive western intellect is invaded by hybrid sexual forms, bursting 
out of the alchemic unconscious. All of Faust is a Walpurgisnacht, a 
return of the occult. The witch-revel episode, Goethe’s addition, is a 
pagan encroachment upon a Christian drama. Goethe identified imagi¬ 
nation with the daemonic: he repeatedly spoke of daemonic assaults 
upon gifted men. Faust is structurally amorphous because it is daemon- 
haunted. The play itself suffers Dionysian fluctuations: metamorphosis 
was the master principle of Goethe’s speculations in science and art. 
Critics comment on his inability or refusal to finish anything. All Goe¬ 
the’s stories, even Werther and Wilhelm Meister, ; were to continue in 
sequels. As a drama, Faust breaks Aristotle’s and Racine’s Apollonian 
rules. It is restless, volatile, glutted with magic epiphanies and contra¬ 
dictory emotional textures. 

The two characters in Faust symbolizing poetry are double-sexed. 
The girlish Boy Charioteer is fancily decked out with jewels and tinsel. 
Euphorion, Faust and Helen’s son, is a classic beautiful boy, part 
Apollo, part Icarus. He wears feminine adornments of Asiatic opulence. 
Like Homer’s Athena, he is the androgyne as symbol of human intel¬ 
ligence. Poetry, Goethe implies, attains universality by a fusion of gen¬ 
ders. To be transsexual in appeal, art must be bisexual in origin. Eupho¬ 
rion is short-lived because he represents Romantic lyricism, which 
bums hot and fast. Goethe joins the vemality of the Greek beautiful boy 
to the true facts of English Romanticism, whose second generation of 
poets died glamourously young. 

The Adonis-like Paris is a maturer Euphorion. Goethe’s Paris is even 
more effeminate than Homer’s. Goethe suggests that femininity in a 
male alienates men but arouses women. Thus the unmanly Paris won 
the most beautiful woman in the world. Other examples of the languid 
boudoir manner are Byron’s Don Juan and George Hamilton, Hol¬ 
lywood’s most popular escort of famous women. The man discreetly 
attending women becomes a misty mirror of their femininity. 

There are two sex changes in Faust Mephistopheles slips into the 
shape of female Phorkyas. Now a smooth courtier, Mephistopheles can 
call on chthonian metamorphosis at will—the realm he came from 
when he began his interventionist career as a serpent trailing after a 
woman. The second example occurs at a carnival, where the Scraggy 
One, a parodic Teiresias, identifies himself as a miser whose sex has 
waned from female to male. Like Dante and Spenser, Goethe identifies 

2 f6 

Amazons, Mothers, Ghosts 

the female principle with emotional generosity. The Scraggy One is a 
gargoyle, spiritually contracted, the androgyne as moral monstrosity. 

An alchemical experiment is performed in the second part of Faust. 
Homunculus, a fabricated being, hovers in its glass retort, a self- 
propelled bubble. Goethe considered giving Homunculus a Homun- 
cula as a mate, but his efforts to bring them together failed. Presumably 
Homunculus, as double-sexed as the alchemic rebis, rebuffed a wife as 
redundant. Faust shows the creative process as alchemic. The glass jar 
is the lucid self-contained world of art, harboring both beauty and 
deformity. As a creative symbol, Homunculus is goblin-twin to Eupho- 
rion and the Boy Charioteer. As a specimen of bioengineering, Homun¬ 
culus anticipates Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein and her hus¬ 
band’s Hermaphrodite in The Witch of Atlas. Manufacture becomes a 
metaphor for the aggressions of Romantic imagination. 

Faust's most imposing androgynes occupy an eerie netherworld be¬ 
yond space and time. Mephistopheles, uneasy, calls them “the Moth¬ 
ers.” They are blind goddesses in a murky barren zone lit by a glowing 
Delphic tripod. The Mothers are Greek Fates combined with Plato’s 
eternal forms: “Formation, Transformation, / Eternal Mind’s eternal 
recreation.” 13 Mephistopheles takes Faust to the omphalos of the uni¬ 
verse, a female heart of darkness. The Mothers are nature’s brute force 
of metamorphosis. Their creative solipsism is a daemonized version of 
Bettina’s autoerotic circularity. Faust's descent to the underworld shows 
past, present, and future. The realm of the Mothers is repressed pagan 
nature, which Enlightenment science failed to illuminate. Romanti¬ 
cism reverses the moral values of day and night. Mephistopheles him¬ 
self hails from “Mother Night,” Clytemnestra’s home. 

Certain Cretan nymphs were called “the mothers,” mentioned by 
Diodorus Siculus as “the Cretan nurses of Zeus.” 14 Goethe’s familiarity 
with classical arcana is shown by his use of the name Baubo for one of 
Faust's witches: Baubo is an ancient totem of ritual exhibitionism, 
raising her skirt to show her genitals. Goethe’s goddesses are the Great 
Mother cloning herself, as profuse as the many breasts of Ephesian 
Artemis or the thousand names of Isis. The Mothers’ multiplicity is 
sinister and suffocating. They flock like Sirens or Harpies, but they are 
far vaster in power. Goethe’s maternal limbo is unparalleled, though it 
takes its tone from the witch scenes of Macbeth. In modem times, even 
when the Great Mother is treated sympathetically, as she is by Joyce and 
Woolf, she controls only green nature, not this gloomy Stygian cavern 
with which western myth associates swarthy male hierarchs. Emptiness 
and barrenness are usually produced by a flight from the maternal, as in 

Goethe to Gothic 

2J 7 

the refusal to mourn the dead mother in Camus’ The Stranger or in the 
horror of the mucoid object-world in Sartre’s Nausea. Wasteland vision 
denies or suppresses the mother. In Faust, however, barrenness and 
fertility are creepily simultaneous. Goethe honors female power, but he 
sees it blocking everything. All roads lead to maternal darkness. 

The Mothers appear in Faust when the hero tries to materialize the 
spirit of Helen. Adult love is overshadowed by maternal claims to 
priority. The male struggles through his sexual stages, returning to the 
mother even when he thinks himself most free of her. Faust finds his 
way to the Mothers with a key that phallically swells. When key and 
tripod touch, they stick. Now Faust is able to conjure up alluring Helen. 
If the mother-realm is the unconscious, key and vulval tripod are the 
self-fecundation of imagination. The Mothers as eternal forms (“Ge- 
stalten”) are the archetypes tapped by the artist in his quest for ideal 
beauty, the elusive Helen. The male artist descending to the Mothers 
makes a journey to terra incognita , his own repressed feminine side, 
where his mother still dwells. 

In key drawn to tripod, Goethe shows the ambivalent compulsions of 
sexual intercourse. Every male copulating with a woman returns to his 
origins in the womb. Goethe postponed intercourse until he was forty. 
This must be related to his self-imposed distance from his forceful 
mother. To refuse phallic penetration is to refuse surrender to the 
female matrix. Goethe was at least seventy-two when he wrote the 
Mothers episode. Therefore it represents a confrontation and perhaps 
reconciliation with a mode of experience he had cast out of his youthful 
imaginative life. Faust shudders at the Mothers’ name. They are un¬ 
canny, archaic, and inescapable. Freud says that the uncanny ( un - 
heimlich ) is really the familiar, the homely ( heimlich ) which one cannot 
bear to recognize. The strangeness of Goethe’s Mothers comes from 
their perpetual proximity. We live with them. The simplistic sexual 
pattern of Part One of Faust , where the virile hero feeds upon the fragile 
femininity of Gretchen, is an evasion of the grosser truths faced by Part 
Two in the Mothers. Faust has an appetite for quivering Gretchen. But 
the Mothers have an appetite for quivering Faust. He is Everyman 
frozen before his maker. 

Faust’s angelic and infernal androgynes were produced by an imagi¬ 
nation both fascinated and repelled by the mystery of sex. In his study of 
biological morphology, Goethe says the scientist must remain “just as 
mobile and pliant” as nature herself. Goethe counsels receptivity and 
subordination but finds them intolerable. After a sickly childhood, he 
undertook a vigorous exercise program to increase his strength: he 

Amazons, Mothers, Ghosts 


seized masculinity by force of will. Goethe’s energy in old age was 
legendary. Deceased contemporaries were the subject of condescending 
remarks. Goethe seemed to feel he had a superhuman power to hold 
death at bay. Thomas Mann says there was something “brutal” and 
“heathenish” in “the arrogant way Goethe sometimes boasted of his vi¬ 
tality, his indestructibility.” 15 Goethe turned his vulnerability to mother 
and nature into imperious mastery of knowledge and other men. His 
principal relationship was with his sister Cornelia, a year younger and 
his only real childhood friend. His imaginative connection to her was 
like Tennessee Williams’ to his mad sister, Rose. In his memoirs, Goe¬ 
the speaks of Cornelia as his twin. She was his Romantic alter ego, what 
Jung would call his animcu, a sister-Muse. Cornelia died at twenty-six, 
soon after her marriage. Did she fail after separation from her twin? 
Goethe’s sister-fixation is evident throughout his love affairs. In letters 
and poems he uses the word “sister” for lover or wife. Goethe’s many 
androgynes may represent a condensed incestuous twinship. 

A sister is a woman who is not the mother. Goethe would not allow his 
mother’s name to be spoken in his presence. He avoided her. He refused 
to answer questions about the episode of the Mothers. Goethe’s mother 
was too strong a personality. He feared to come near her lest he be 
reabsorbed into her gravitational field and returned to childhood de¬ 
pendency. Goethe’s biographer says, “Most of his relations with women 
ended in sexual renunciation.” 16 Heterosexuality for men will always 
carry the danger of loss of identity. Goethe, unlike Antaeus, gained 
strength by not touching mother earth. 

Wilhelm Meister 's transvestism echoes an incident just before Goethe 
began The Sorrows of Young Werther The source of this story is his own 
mother. Goethe invited her and her friends to watch him skate on a 
frozen river. His mother wore a long red fur cloak trimmed with gold. 
Goethe demanded the garment, put it on, and skated away—leaving 
her astonished and bewildered. Old engravings of the scene appear in 
popular articles about Goethe. K. R. Eissler says: “It is most remarkable 
that the greatest German poet, one week before he set out to write his 
greatest novel, felt the impulse on the spur of the moment to exhibit 
himself to his mother and a large crowd dressed in a conspicuous piece 
of female clothing.” 17 Theft and expropriation. Artists take what they 
want and need. Goethe plays rude Baubo with the Great Mother. He 
makes aggression and mockery an open-air pagan theater. 

Freud thinks the fetishist’s fur and velvet are symbolic substitutes for 
the mother’s pubic hair. 18 Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870) seems to 
support this. Goethe lures his mother into an arena of hierarchic as- 

Goethe to Gothic 


sault. The frozen river is his own unnatural coldness to her: this ice is 
Dante’s pit, where fathers eat their children. Generations are at war, 
striving for dominance. Like Prometheus, Goethe steals the red flame 
of the old order. He wrests the vatic mantle from his mother, claiming 
for himself the Delphic power to give birth to Werther. Harold Bloom 
says, “A strong poet. . . must divine or invent himself, and so attempt 
the impossibility of originating himself l” 19 Goethe forces a public ritual 
of self-origination. Jesus’ career begins at Cana, where he harshly tells 
Maiy, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come” 
(John 2:4). Goethe on the frozen river says to his mother, my hour is 
come, and I take from you what I need to give birth to myself. The 
midwives stand gaping on the banks, spurned and useless. Remus, 
leaping his brother Romulus’ wall, meant to break its magic, as by rape. 
Plutarch reports that Julius Caesar, the night before he crossed the 
Rubicon, dreamed he had sexual relations with this mother. Goethe too 
crosses a river and rapes his motherland. Attack and retreat: a declara¬ 
tion of imaginative independence. Henceforth, Goethe will be defiantly 
separate from his formidable mother. He steals the Palladium, the 
cultic Athena, which brings down Troy. Formerly under his mother’s 
aegis, he now wears it. He is transvestite son to a vanquished Amazon 
goddess. For another artist, turning from the mother might mean a 
withering of feeling, a creative stunting. But Goethe instinctively re¬ 
oriented himself toward his sister-spirit, borrowing her purified femi¬ 
ninity. Together they would rule his new inner world, twin Ptolemies of 
self-orphaning Romanticism. 

Goethe used transsexual analogies to describe his creative process, 
referring to himself as a pregnant woman. He spoke of being “suddenly 
overwhelmed” by his poems, which forced themselves upon him fully 
formed. Artistically, he felt feminine and passive toward a superior 
power, an idea we will find in Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. Recol¬ 
lections of Goethe often use sexually ambiguous terminology. Schiller, 
for example, said, “I look on him as a haughty prudish woman whom 
one wants to get with child.” Goethe called his intimacy with Karl 
August, Duke of Weimar a “marriage.” The two even slept in the same 
room. In the period of his Bettina poetry, Goethe admits to homosexual 
feelings. A suppressed Venetian epigram declares, “I’m fairly fond of 
boys, but my preference is girls; / When I have enough of a girl, she 
serves me still as a boy” (40). 20 Sodomy unexpectedly rears its head at 
the end of Faust, when the hero’s soul escapes because Mephistopheles 
is distracted by the angels’ physical attractions. Are Wilhelm Meister’s 
female transvestites and girl-boy Mignon sexually transformed males? 


Amazons, Mothers, Ghosts 

Goethe, who repeatedly compared himself to Voltaire’s Mambre, 
eunuch philosopher to Pharaoh, was a castrate priest declining to wor¬ 
ship his goddess. The ice upon which he tauntingly skated hardened 
and externalized the chthonian swampiness of sex and mother love. 
Late in life he said, “The sexual act destroys beauty, but nothing is more 
beautiful than what precedes this moment. Only in ancient art is eternal 
youth captured and depicted. And what does eternal youth mean other 
than never to have known a man or a woman.” 21 Sex destroys beauty: 
Dionysus subverts the Apollonian eye. Romantic Goethe continually 
seduced classical Goethe. In the Wincklemann way, Goethe thought 
the male body more beautiful than the female. There may be less 
homosexuality in this than Apollonian idealization, the high articula¬ 
tion of the eye, often accompanied by chastity. Goethe was heroically 
self-contained and self-sufficient. Like Beethoven, he married himself. 

Goethe’s androgynes are fitting symbols for his life work, with its 
titanic all-inclusiveness. Sex for Goethe is a gathering in, not a dis¬ 
semination. He claimed there was no vice or crime of which he could 
not find a trace in himself. Romantic art is self-exploratory, self- 
arousing, self-maiming. Goethe said, “Geniuses experience a second 
adolescence, whereas other people are only young once.” Goethe re¬ 
tained his access to both sexes by renewing and prolonging puberty, in 
which gender fluctuates. Romanticism once seemed to make large 
simple gestures of rebellion. But we barely begin to understand its 
charged sexual complexities and archaic pagan ritualism. 

Decadence is inherent in Romanticism. Sadomasochism, 
we have seen, is already present in Romantic eroticism from its first 
formulation by Rousseau. As the historical rhythm of Romanticism 
moves forward, the organic logic of artistic style takes over. The late 
phase of Romantic style is luridly Hellenistic or Mannerist: distortion of 
form, sadomasochistic fantasy, and psychological closure. Our first ex¬ 
ample is Heinrich von Kleist (1777—1811), a poet of the late phase of 
German Romanticism. What Goethe dreamed about through Werther, 
Kleist put into action. Kleist obsessively meditated upon and ritualisti- 
cally planned his suicide, which he succeeded in at age thirty-four. 
Goethe had made suicide poetic and erotic. Kleist, the perfect masoch¬ 
ist, allowed dominant Goethe to write a grisly life-poem through him. 

Kleist’s play, Penthesilea (1808), illustrates the daemonic sensational¬ 
ism of German Late Romanticism. It reverses the hierarchy of sexual 
personae in the Greek legend of Achilles and Penthesilea. Instead of 
Achilles killing the Amazon queen, she kills him. Kleist’s militant Ama- 

Goethe to Gothic 


zons have tremendous chthonian ferocity. Epic similes compare Pen- 
thesilea to a she-wolf, a raging torrent, a storm wind, a thunderbolt. 
When the normally Apollonian Amazon enters drama, there is an erup¬ 
tion of Dionysian violence. Spenser defeats the surly Amazon Radi- 
gund, but Kleist exalts her. In Romanticism, nature, not society rules. In 
Penthesilea woman, as conduit of the natural, obliterates manhood and 

The design of Kleist’s play is sadomasochistic oscillation. Achilles 
and Penthesilea try to dominate each other physically and psychologi¬ 
cally. Each surge of assertion is followed by relapse, a hypnotic longing 
for sexual submission. Achilles and Penthesilea manage to capture 
each other a ludicrous number of times: Kleist’s anarchic plot line 
reflects the ambiguities and contradictions in heterosexuality. Sadistic 
Penthesilea is aroused by masochistic fantasies in which her dead body 
is battered, degraded, and discarded. I hear the influence of Shake¬ 
speare’s Antony and Cleopatra here, as also in Kleist’s images of land 
submerged in water, the public persona drowned in erotic obsession. 

Kleist’s Achilles, unlike Homer’s, wants to lose. Three times he casts 
away sword and shield. He walks to his death in somnambulistic trance, 
seeking enslavement to Penthesilea, who falls upon him with her dogs. 
The play suddenly ascribes a feminine softness to Achilles. As he turns 
his neck, it is pierced by Penthesilea’s arrow. Neck-turning or neck¬ 
exposing is a classically feminine gesture, with parallels of animal 
surrender. I find it in Michelangelo’s Giuliano de’ Medici, portraits of 
Byron, Flaubert’s Madame Bovaiy, and George Eliot’s vain Rosamond 
Lydgate. In Kleist, Achilles’ feminine neck is his Achilles’ heel, phal- 
lically penetrated by the Amazon. She and her dogs go into chthonian 
furor, savagely ripping off Achilles’ armour and sinking their teeth into 
his chest. Penthesilea locks onto his left breast, blood dripping from her 
mouth. Later she laments she “ravaged” Achilles by breaking through 
the “snow-white alabaster wall” of his breast. 22 Her assault is mas¬ 
culine violation of feminine virginity. The rape focuses on breasts rather 
than genitals. Achilles seems to give suck to his beloved and her dogs, 
his breasts flowing with gore rather than milk. Kleist invents a grue¬ 
some version of the androgyne I call Teiresias, the nurturant male. He is 
injecting Sade’s nature into Rousseau’s tender mother-relations. 

Penthesilea, a Romantic vampire, drains her victim, body and soul. Is 
Achilles’ pierced breast an example of Freud’s “displacement upwards” 
from the genitals? So Penthesilea castrates. The rape-like devouring of 
a penis disguised as a breast appears in Bob Dylan’s brilliant invective, 
“Ballad of a Thin Man,” where a sadistic voice attacks the naive Mr. 


Amazons, Mothers, Ghosts 

Jones with the homosexual demand, “You’re a cow! Give me some milk 
or else go home!” Kleist’s Achilles and Dylan’s Mr. Jones enter and 
misread a menacing sexual scene. Both are punished for their misread¬ 
ing by compulsory feminization. Teiresias too turns female after stum¬ 
bling on a chthonian scene. Voracious Penthesilea sinks to the level of 
her dogs. Dogs suckling a human breast reverse the image of Romulus 
and Remus nursed by the she-wolf (for which Eliade finds parallels in 
Central Asia). Multiple nursing is usually animalistic, an exception 
being Daumier’s allegorical The Republic. Achilles’ death is a primitive, 
barbaric spectacle. Michelangelo’s Giuliano similarly combines a femi¬ 
nine neck with sadistically pierced breasts. In Kleist, however, there is a 
thrashing violence, Hellenistic storm and stress. Amazon and dogs 
in feeding frenzy fuse with and hybridize Achilles’ body, a horrific 
mutilation-through-accretion recalling the grotesque deaths of Eu¬ 
ripides’ Medea, where princess and king stick and bum like tar. Late- 
phase art disfigures the human form. 

Phallus as breast: one explanation, as we saw, for the penile or canine 
breasts of the Ephesian Artemis was that Amazons hung the idol with 
gift strings of their amputated breasts. Attacking Achilles’ chest, Pen¬ 
thesilea is not only desexing him but making him an Amazon, a version 
of herself. She is a sadistic erotic mastectomist. All Romantic femmes 
fatales are avatars of daemonic mother nature. Kleist’s Amazon is a 
hermaphrodite deity rewriting Genesis. She hurls Adam’s rib back 
through his Adam’s apple, then mutilates his rib cage without healing it. 
Like Jehovah, she makes man in her own image. The dying Achilles is 
now her twin, her Romantic sister-spirit. 

Kleist dwells on the Amazons’ amputated breasts throughout the play. 
Greek artists, we saw, never showed the Amazon’s body as maimed. The 
Late Romantic Kleist, on the other hand, makes the detail central. 
Nowhere else in literature or art, not even in Sade, is so much made of 
breast amputation. Kleist’s hero is fetishistically aroused by a woman’s 
mutilating masculinization. He presses his face to Penthesilea’s breast 
with a rush of endearments. Decadence is a style of excess and extrava¬ 
gance which approaches self-parody. It operaticizes by overliteralizing. 
Hence one laughs even when shocked or repelled, as in Sade. Kleist’s 
stage directions are also parodic. This one, for example, rivals Shake¬ 
speare’s “Exit, pursued by a bear”: “Penthesilea looks round as if for a 
chair. The Amazons roll up a stone.” 23 It was presumably the decadent 
elements in Penthesilea that led Goethe to condemn it as “unplayable.” 

As a classical saga of the erotic destruction of male by female, Pen¬ 
thesilea prefigures Swinburne’s verse-play Atalanta in Calydon Kleist 

Goethe to Gothic 


and Swinburne identify kissing with biting, sex with appetite and can¬ 
nibalism. Achilles’ macabre murder resembles the narrated climax of 
Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, where the epicene Sebas¬ 
tian Venable is tom to pieces and eaten by a mob of boys he has 
solicited. Penthesilea’s maniacal ecstasy comes from Euripides’ Agave, 
who dismembers her son in the Bacchae. Penthesilea raves, foams at the 
mouth, hurls boulders, tears Achilles’ body limb from limb. She longs to 
root up sky and planets, to drag down the sun “by his flaming golden 
hair,” to pile mountain on mountain. Dionysian vision is disordering 
and anti-hierarchical. In “Voodoo Child,” Jimi Hendrix aspires with 
drug-induced titanism: “I stand up next to a mountain, and I chop it 
down with the edge of my hand.” Shamanistic peaking is aggressive and 
self-destructive. Space is traversed, transcended, exploded. Penthe¬ 
silea’s expansion of self through the influx of primeval force is so 
overwhelming that she begins to devour all other selves. Kleist reshapes 
classical legend into a parable of Romantic solipsism. Penthesilea' s 
ritualistic oscillations between sadism and masochism are unique in 
Romanticism. In Poe, for example, the sadomasochistic relations of 
male and female personae are relatively stable and mappable. But 
Penthesilea is a swirling vortex of sadomasochistic passions, each sav¬ 
agely devouring the next. Welcome to Late Romantic nature, created by 
Rousseau’s benign overidealizations. Penthesilea can be read allegori¬ 
cally, as a descent into the poet’s unconscious, where two parts of the 
psyche, masculine and feminine, fight for supremacy. 

The play’s sexual personae have indeterminate boundaries, which 
are corrected and hardened by emotional, physical, and sexual assault. 
Penthesilea’s dangerous expansion of self has historical causes. The 
failure of traditional hierarchies in the late eighteenth century removed 
social and philosophical limitations essential for happiness, security, 
and self-knowledge. Without external restrictions, there can be no self- 
definition. The dissolution of hierarchical orders permitted personality 
to expand so suddenly that it went into a free fall of anxiety. Hence the 
self had to be chastened, its boundaries redefined, even by pain. The 
self must be reduced in size. This is the ultimate meaning of Penthesilea' s 
erotics of mastectomy. Romanticism, swelling, contracts itself in Deca¬ 
dence. Mutilations and amputations belong to an aesthetics of subtrac¬ 
tion, a pathological metaphysic in which the imagination reorients itself 
to the world by a surgical reduction of self. Sadomasochism will always 
appear in the freest times, in imperial Rome or the late twentieth 
century. It is a pagan ritual of riddance, stilling anxiety and fear. 

Kleist’s Achilles, lying in streams of blood under a pack of dogs, is 


Amazons, Mothers, Ghosts 

glamourous with masochistic ecstasy. Dying, he touches Penthesilea’s 
cheek: “O my bride, is this / The festival of roses that you promised?” 
(To which she should reply, if she could get her teeth out of his chest, “I 
never promised you a rose garden.”) Late Romantics love the climactic 
pieta, starring what I call the male heroine. Woman cradles the victim, 
but only after she has batted him down and crushed him. The romance 
of the male heroine is a dream of disordered receptivity, in which there 
is a transsexual impulse. I find a parallel symbolism in a fringe-group 
homosexual practice that appeared in the 1970s: “fist-fucking,” whose 
devotees crave anal penetration by a male arm, greased by Crisco, up to 
the elbow. Proctologists warned about internal damage they were re¬ 
pairing, first sign of the cycle of excess that led to aids. Ten years ago, I 
was deeply impressed by an early pornographic film I saw of these 
activities. It had the solemnity and gloom of a pagan ritual, like the 
tableaux of Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries. Sex as crucifixion and 
torture. Fist-fucking, in its starkly depersonalized conflation of volun- 
taiy rape and primitive exploratory surgery, dramatizes the daemonism 
of the sexual imagination, untouched by five thousand years of civiliza¬ 
tion. My amazement never ceases at the biological conceptualism in 
male sexuality. What woman could invent such compulsive structures? 
What woman, unpaid, would five and love in so hellish an underworld? 

The life of Heinrich von Kleist reveals the sexual conflicts that in¬ 
spired Penthesilea. Kleist’s failure to follow family military tradition was 
severely censured. Literature was an unsuitable and unserious voca¬ 
tion. Kleist’s suicide, by pistol in the mouth (like Hemingway’s shot¬ 
gun), expresses his martyrdom to Teutonic masculinity Guns in the 
mouth may also suggest something not immediately apparent in Pen¬ 
thesilea: repressed and therefore destructive homosexual desire. Kleist 
tried to persuade his friends to a double suicide pact, and one finally 
agreed. Kleist spoke erotically of the anticipated event as “the most 
glorious and sensual of deaths.” 24 

A Romantic solipsist is in inevitable intimacy with a sister, in this case 
Kleist’s half-sister Ulrike, who he said had “nothing of her sex but the 
hips.” He longed to live with her, in Romantic union. Is she the model 
for Penthesilea? Many scholars note the recurrence of ideas, images, 
and phraseology in Kleist’s work. Walter Silz says, “Kleist is the most 
persistent self-plagiarist in German literature.” 25 Self-plagiarism is in¬ 
cest and autoeroticism, the uroboros of Goethe’s Bettina. It is the self- 
devouring style of the sadomasochistic Penthesilea . Kleist’s turn tow ard 
his sister was toward his missing sexual component, but he was femi¬ 
nine and she masculine. She was the he which he needed. Kleist’s 

Goethe to Gothic 


Romantic family romance produced the defiant Amazon manifesto of 
Penthesilea, which rings with modernity. Women have rarely spoken so 
boldly for themselves as Kleist speaks for them here. 

Sade’s reaction against Rousseau was sweeping and sys¬ 
tematic, but it was censored and thus not absorbed into French litera¬ 
ture until long afterward. The English reaction against Rousseau took 
assimilable form: the Gothic novel. Because English literature had the 
archetypal precedents of The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost , English 
Romanticism from the start had a daemonic intensity that French 
Romanticism took forty more years to acquire. English Gothicism of the 
1790s is equivalent to the medieval alchemy and occultism in Faust , 
which Goethe was working on at the time. Gothic darkness and rough¬ 
ness oppose the Apollonian Enlightenment’s light, contour, and sym¬ 
metry. Protestant rationalism is defeated by Gothic’s return to the ritual¬ 
ism and mysticism of medieval Catholicism, with its residual paganism. 
Art withdraws into caverns, castles, prison-cells, tombs, coffins. Gothic 
is a style of claustrophobic sensuality. Its closed spaces are daemonic 
wombs. The Gothic novel is sexually archaic: it withdraws into chtho- 
nian darkness, the realm of Goethe’s Mothers. Mother night pervades 
Romanticism, from Coleridge and Keats to Poe and Chopin with his 
brooding nocturnes. The ghosts released by Gothic will stalk through 
the nineteenth century as spiritualism, whose seances continue today in 
Great Britain. 

The Gothic tradition was begun by Ann Radcliffe, a rare example of a 
woman creating an artistic style. The Gothic novel with the greatest 
impact on Romanticism, however, was Matthew G. Lewis’ The Monk 
(1796). Lewis, a friend of Byron, influenced all the English Romantic 
poets as well as Hoffmann, Scott, Poe, Hawthorne, and Emily Bronte. 
The Monk’s medieval monastery is a sequestered Christian space which 
Lewis, like Sade, defiles with pagan eroticism. As we saw in Spenser, 
illicitness increases the pleasure of sexual transgression. Reviewing The 
Monk , Coleridge praised its “libidinous minuteness.” 26 Lewis’ hero, the 
abbot Ambrosio, discovers his fellow monk Rosario is actually Matilda, 
a woman in disguise. Lewis withholds Matilda’s identity in the Spen¬ 
serian manner, speaking of her up to this point as “he.” Matilda tears 
open her habit and rests a dagger on her left breast, lit by moonbeams. 
Fin-de-siecle Gothic has a decadent sensationalism. Lewis’ erotic 
chiaroscuro juxtaposes lust with chastity, exhibitionism with voyeurism. 
Does Matilda point with the dagger to inflame or mutilate herself? to 
direct and sharpen our aggressive western eye? Her transvestism is the 


Amazons, Mothers, Ghosts 

mildest of her perversities. Only Coleridge’s Christabel surpasses The 
Monk in its pornographic exploitation of Christian moralism. 

Matilda is sexually divided. She insists on retaining her male name as 
an erotic aid. After she seduces the monk, she oddly becomes more 
masculine instead of more feminine. She seems to grow in mental 
power, prefiguring Poe’s Ligeia. Lewis implies Matilda’s gender is in 
flux: a self-adjusting mechanism maintains her hermaphroditism, like 
water seeking its own level. Ambrosio’s homoerotic longing for the 
vanished Rosario shows his preference for a feminine pseudo-male over 
a sexually available masculine woman. But the startling last pages of 
The Monk force us to reread. Lucifer, come to claim Ambrosio’s soul, 
reveals Matilda is a male demon sent to corrupt him. This is from 
Spenser: a male spirit masques as the False Florimell. Matilda’s post- 
coital “manliness” is therefore the flaunting sashaying of a triumphant 
drag-queen demon. Our first and psychologically primaiy reading of 
the novel has been in complete error. The meltingly delicious sex be¬ 
tween Ambrosio and Matilda—all pantings, twinings, and obscure re¬ 
finements—has been homosexual and daemonic, not heterosexual. 
Our own sexual perceptions have been seduced. Sensuality aglow in 
Gothic gloom: surely Keats has normalized Lewis’ carnal scene for The 
Eve of Saint Agnes y with its bedchamber show of lush sweetmeats. 

Matilda’s male identity is not the only surprise at the end of The 
Monk . Lucifer reveals that Ambrosio has unwittingly committed incest 
and matricide: “Antonia and Elvira perished by your hand. That An¬ 
tonia whom you violated, was your sister! that Elvira whom you mur¬ 
dered, gave you birth!” 27 Here again is the riddling sound of impacted 
sexual psychodrama, which I found in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and 
Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, The Monk turns out to be a festering family 
romance. Lucifer’s incantation, unlike Rosalind’s, looks toward the 
past. It is like a curtain drawn back from a Mannerist panorama, where 
we see the sweeping diagonal of Ambrosio’s spiritual history in a glare 
of lurid fight. Ambrosio is the first haunted hero of Romantic sex-crime. 
As You Like It ends with the reknitting of Renaissance community, but 
The Monk ends in terrible primeval isolation. Lucifer drops Ambrosio 
onto a rocky nightmare landscape, like Mona Lisa’s lunar lawn. He is 
“bruised and mangled,” his limbs “broken and dislocated.” The sun 
scorches him, insects devour him, eagles tear his flesh and dig out his 
eyeballs: Lewis, like Sade, has a Darwinian vision of amoral apocalyptic 
nature. The Gothic novel rebuts Rousseau: The Monk redaemonizes 
sex, finking it to sin, suffering, and natural brutality. Ambrosio’s incest 
demonstrates the occult compulsiveness of sex. He is magnetically 

Goethe to Gothic 


drawn to his unknown mother and sister by unconscious fatality. I 
suspect Balzac borrowed this detail for The Girl with the Golden Eyes. 
The Romantic prestige of incest springs from its reversal of history and 
its collapsing of psychic energies into the overenlarged self. Incest is 
part of the sexually archaic material released into society whenever 
hierarchies weaken. 

Satan is the severe pagan god of The Monk. At the end, Lucifer shows 
his true chthonian form: “blasted limbs,” taloned hands and feet, snaky 
Medusan hair. But his first appearance is as an Apollonian angel, meant 
to dupe the homosexual-tending Ambrosio. Lucifer is a dazzling naked 
ephebe with fiery long hair and crimson wings. He wears a star on his 
forehead and diamond bracelets on his arms and ankles. He carries a 
silver myrtle branch. Romanticism returns to the Renaissance style of 
epiphanic sexual personae. In art, self-display is meaning, more than 
criticism has understood. I have shown this iconicism going back to 
Egypt and Greece. Lewis , Lucifer aestheticizes and sexualizes a Bibli¬ 
cal seraph, a Babylonian not a Hebraic style. He may be influenced by 
Spenser’s Byzantine Belphoebe, who also halts narrative action. Lewis’ 
Lucifer is again the “light-bearer,” but he is hard and crystalline. His 
silver branch is a golden bough, the wand with which art freezes and 
transcends vegetative nature. Appearing in a rose-colored cloud, Lu¬ 
cifer fills the monk’s “cavern” with air and light. Nietzsche sees the 
German mind in “clouds and everything that is unclear.” Spengler 
identifies occult Magian experience with the “world-cavern.” 28 The 
Apollonianism of Lewis’ androgyne propels sunlit Mediterranean for¬ 
malism into the daemonic murk of the Gothic novel. His seraph may be 
in Faust's Euphorion, in Balzac’s Seraphita, and in the ghost of Bloom’s 
son in Joyce’s Ulysses , a “fairy boy” whose diamond and ruby buttons 
and violet colors recall the seraph’s diamonds and rose light. 

There is latent eroticism in the entire tradition of the 
“novel of terror,” which began in late eighteenth-century Gothicism 
and became the modem horror film. Freud says “the sexually exciting 
influence of some painful affects, such as fear, shuddering, and hor¬ 
ror, . . . explains why so many seek opportunities to experience such 
sensations” in books or the theater. 29 The thrill of terror is passive, 
masochistic, and implicitly feminine. It is imaginative submission to 
overwhelming superior force. The vast audience of the Gothic novel 
was and is female. Men who cultivate the novel or film of terror seek 
sex-crossing sensations. Horror films are most popular among adoles¬ 
cents, whose screams are Dionysian signals of sexual awakening. Re- 


Amazons, Mothers, Ghosts 

viewers often wonder why the packed audiences of bloody slasher films 
are sedate couples on weekend dates. Shared fear is a physically stimu¬ 
lating sexual transaction. Freud’s use of the word “shuddering” shows 
the common area between fear and orgasmic pleasure. In Yeats’s “Leda 
and the Swan,” the “shudder in the loins” is both the rapist’s climax and 
the victim’s fright. 

Violent horror films, of the splattering kind now so common, seem to 
me a most pedestrian taste. A classy genre of vampire film follows a 
style I call psychological high Gothic. It begins in Coleridge’s medieval 
Christabel and its descendants, Poe’s Ligeia and James's The Turn of the 
Screw. A good example is Daughters of Darkness (1971), starring Del- 
phine Seyrig as an elegant lesbian vampire. High Gothic is abstract and 
ceremonious. Evil has become world-weary, hierarchical glamour. 
There is no bestiality. The theme is eroticized western power, the bur¬ 
den of history. The Hunger (1983) comes close to being a masterpiece of 
this genre but is ruined by horrendous errors, as when the regal Cather¬ 
ine Deneuve is made to crawd around on all fours, slavering over cut 
throats. Please. Butchery is not the point of vampirism. Sex—domina¬ 
tion and submission—is. Gothic horror must be moderated by Apollo¬ 
nian discipline, or it turns into gross buffoonery. The run-of-the-mill 
horror film is anti-aesthetic and anti-idealizing. Its theme is sparagmos, 
the form-pulverizing energies of Dionysus. Horror films unleash the 
forces repressed by Christianity—evil and the barbarism of nature. 
Horror films are rituals of pagan worship. There western man ob¬ 
sessively confronts what Christianity has never been able to bury or 
explain away. Horror stories ending in the victory of good are no more 
numerous than those ending in the threat of evil’s return. Nature, like 
the vampire, will not stay in its grave. 

Vulgar horror films awash in red slop or grungy decay reflect a 
Northern European sensibility, the self-soiling of too-clean Protestant¬ 
ism. Undignified abuse of the body is analogous to medieval gargoyles 
or fairy tales’ dwarves and trolls, whom I find impossible to take se¬ 
riously, even in Wagner. The Mediterranean rightly identifies chtho- 
nian deformations with impressive female monsters, like Scylla. North¬ 
ern European male trolls are an evasion of the harsh reality of female 
nature. Horror films dwell on Dionysian mutilations of or encrustations 
upon the human figure—scabs, scars, swellings. Movie monsters seem 
covered with moss or fungus. They are as gnarled and lumpish as tree 
stumps. G. Wilson Knight says, “Much of our horror at death is, at 
bottom, a physical repulsion.” 30 The horror film uses rot as a primary 
material, part of the Christian west’s secret craving for Dionysian truths. 

Goethe to Gothic 


The horror film blunders about, seeking, without realizing it, the chtho- 
nian swamp of generation, the female matrix. There is dissolution in 
nature, but there is also fecundity and cosmic grandeur. The horror film 
is philosophically incomplete, because Christianity is incomplete. Clas¬ 
sical paganism had a far more comprehensive view of sex and nature. 
Like Fifties science-fiction films, Seventies disaster films, such as The 
Towering Inferno , have been blamed on international political tensions 
and anxieties. I disagree. Dreams of disaster will always appear when 
benevolent Rousseauism is in the air. The liberal Sixties, identifying sex 
and nature with love and peace, produced the Sadean counterreaction 
of Seventies catastrophism. The present preoccupation with nuclear 
apocalypse is also crypto-religious. Fear of world holocaust is another 
self-haunting, a way to subordinate the self to the cosmos in an era of 
easy, all-forgiving therapies and faiths. 

The eighteenth-century novel of terror inherited the emotional com¬ 
plex of sublimity. The idea of the sublime came to the Augustans from 
Roman Longinus and culminated in Edmund Burke’s Philosophical 
Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful ( 1757 ). 
Burke sees “a mode of terror, or of pain” as the cause of the sublime. 
Burke anticipates Freud’s idea of the sexual excitation in fear: “Terror is 
a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too 
close.” 31 Lionel Trilling wrongly connects Burke’s sublime with mas¬ 
culinity: “The experience of terror stimulates an energy of aggression 
and dominance.” 32 But Burke’s locutions clearly demonstrate the pas¬ 
sive self-subordination of male devotees of the sublime. In Shelley’s 
“Mont Blanc,” nature overwhelms male imagination with chilling fas- 
cistic force. The sexual element is already apparent in early theories of 
the sublime. John Dennis’ essay on Longinus (1704) says the sublime 
“ravishes and transports us.” It is “an invincible Force, which commits a 
pleasing Rape upon the very Soul of the Reader.” Schiller too, following 
Burke, sees a “paroxysm” or “shudder” in the sublime, a joy turning to 
“rapture.” 33 The sublime, a mode of pagan vision, is one of the first 
historical signs of the Romantic withdrawal from masculine action. In 
sublimity and Gothic terror, western emotion opens itself directly to 
nature, with its ghostly flood of archaic night. 

Sex Bound and Unbound 


William Blake is the British Sade, as Emily Dickinson is 
the American Sade. Directly inspired by The Faerie Queene and its 
incomplete response in Paradise Lost, Blake makes sex war the first 
theatrical conflict of English Romanticism. The daemonic wombs of 
the Gothic novel are too confined for Blake’s cosmic drama. In the same 
decade as Sade, Blake turns sex and psyche into a Darwinian cycle of 
turbulent natural energies, fleeing, chasing, devouring. The postwar 
critics who rescued Romantic poetry from low esteem tended to ignore 
or downplay troublesome sexual and moral ambiguities. For example, 
Northrop Frye’s pioneering study of Blake, Fearful Symmetry (1947), 
optimistically promotes sexual liberation in a way that seems, a weary 
generation later, simplistic and naive. How much was hoped from sex. 
How little sex can deliver. Blake’s writing is split by a terrible contradic¬ 
tion: Blake wants to free sex from its social and religious constraints, but 
he also wants to escape the domination of the Great Mother of chtho- 
nian nature. Alas, with every turn toward sex, we run right back into 
mother nature’s dark embrace. Blake’s tireless productivity as poet and 
draughtsman came from the intolerable entrapments male imagination 
finds itself in when reflecting on nature. Blake’s poetry is sexual grand 
opera of instability, anguish, and resentment. 

Prophet and radical, Blake denounces all social forms. He takes 
Rousseau’s hostility to civilization farther than Rousseau himself. For 
Blake, sexual personae, which belong to the social realm of role- 
playing, are artificial and false. He differs from the other English Ro¬ 
mantics on several points. All believe love is primal energy. But Blake is 
the only one to oppose androgyny as a solution to rigid sex roles. Blake 
condemns androgyny as solipsism. His hermaphrodites are monstrous. 



Romantic solipsism, a self-communing and self-fructification, becomes 
sterile in Blake. Why? Because Blake, though he follows and extends 
Rousseau’s politics, sees nature with Sade’s eyes. In Blake, Rousseau’s 
tender nature mother makes a fm-de-siecle leap into daemonic monu- 
mentality. Brother to Sade, whom he could not have known or read, 
Blake revives the bloodthirsty goddess of ancient mystery religion, sen¬ 
sational with Asiatic barbarism. He longs to defeat her. But by attacking 
her, he creates her and confirms her power. Ironically, he becomes her 
slave and emissary, a voice crying in the wilderness. Nowhere else in 
literature is the Great Mother as massively, violently eloquent as she is 
in Blake. 

Blake, following Spenser, constructs a complex symbolic psychology 
not yet fully understood. One of Blake’s basic patterns is that of warring 
contraries through which spiritual progress is pursued, as in The Faerie 
Queene. As his poetry develops, Blake’s principal combat is between 
male and female, metaphors for the tension between humanity and 
nature. In the early Songs of Innocence (1789), sex war is not yet an 
issue, but it is prefigured in the theme of tyrannical power relations, 
toward which Blake takes Rousseau’s view but Sade’s tone. Blake is 
interested in coercion, repetition-compulsion, spiritual rape. He sees 
sadism and vampirism in male authority figures. The child speakers of 
“The Chimney Sweeper” and “The Little Black Boy” are physically ex¬ 
ploited and psychologically manipulated. They are the invisible slaves 
or houris of a corrupt new industrial society. Their minds have been 
invaded by a daemonic compact of church and state. “So if all do their 
duty, they need not fear harm”: adult voices come from their mouths in 
evil ventriloquism. The sexual element in this brainwashing is evident 
in “Holy Thursday,” where grey-haired beadles with “wands as white as 
snow” herd a stream of children into St. Paul’s Cathedral. The wands 
are Spenser’s phallic white rods, here symbolizing wintry devitalization. 
The beadles are perverts, voyeurs, decadents. They freeze the children’s 
river of life. 

In Songs of Innocence white is the color of desexing. The white hair of 
the lamblike chimney sweep, little Tom Dacre, expresses his premature 
adult experience. The child-slaves advance from childhood to old age 
without passing through adult virility. As in the penalty card of capitalist 
Monopoly: “Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.’ 
Elsewhere in Blake, sexual jealousy cripples human energy. In Songs of 
Innocence , male authority is an impotent Herod, massacring the inno¬ 
cents while ravishing them with eye and mind. Society operates by vi¬ 
cious pederasty. In 1789, both sexes still powdered their hair or wore 


Sex Bound and Unbound 

wigs. The eigthteenth century honored age and tradition, overthrown by 
Romanticism in its youth-cult. Blake’s white-haired chimney sweep is 
ritual victim of an unnatural regime. The high stylization of eighteenth- 
century wigs—we hear of women unable to pass through doorways, of 
towering arrangements of fruit, foliage, and birds’ nests—was a symp¬ 
tom of decadence. Powdered hair is a perverse fantasy of frost and angel 
dust, worldliness masquerading as innocence. Blake’s artificially whit¬ 
ened children are overexperienced and knowledgeable. An unsettling 
analogy can be found in a Roman imperial sarcophagus decorated with 
leering obese putti, fetid with adult sensuality. Blake’s cherubs are 
depraved by adult tyranny. Henry James takes up Blake’s theme in The 
Turn of the Screw , where an obsessed hierarch, the governess, projects 
sexual sophistication upon a boy who dies an exhausted prisoner of her 
febrile imagination. Blake’s white-haired chimney sweep represents the 
class of all exploited persons. The white hair is sexually universalizing, 
because the exploited are humiliatingly feminized by amoral political 
power. Erich Fromm says, “For the authoritarian character there exist, 
so to speak, two sexes: the powerful ones and the powerless ones.” 1 
Sexual personae in Songs of Innocence are imagined as generations 
cannibalizing each other. Blake’s innocent children are precursors of his 
male victims emasculated by cruel women. 

“Infant Joy” is Blake’s most neglected major poem. Harold Bloom 
devotes one sentence to it in his book on Blake, and he and Lionel 
Trilling omit it from the Oxford Anthology of Romantic literature. “In¬ 
fant Joy” has a deceptive simplicity: 

I have no name 
I am but two days old.— 

What shall I call thee? 

I happy am 
Joy is my name,— 

Sweet joy befall thee! 

Pretty joy! 

Sweet joy but two days old. 

Sweet joy I call thee: 

Thou dost smile. 

I sing the while 
Sweet joy befall thee. 

We have regressed to the infancy of consciousness. We see Rousseau’s 
saintly child as it crosses the border into being. What do we find there? 
Tenderness and innocence threatened on all sides. I learned to read 


27 3 

poetry from Milton Kessler, whose brilliant remarks on “Infant Joy” I 
reconstruct from my college notes: 

“Infant Joy” is a flawless physical caress which induces weeping. 
The metaphor for this poem is taking the child in one’s hands. But 
an adult taking up a newborn is suddenly, involuntarily conscious 
of the ease with which he could crush it to pieces. In “Infant Joy” 
there is a sense of the enormous proximity, the closeness and 
intimacy of the speaker. The child has no voice of its own yet. It is 
given an identity by some great coercive power. There are certain 
forms of sadistic tenderness more intimate than the psyche will 
allow. “Infant Joy” is like Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane,” 
where the bearlike poet, with his terrifying and roaring energy, 
approaches a delicate being in dangerous nearness. The elegy 
begins: “I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils.” 

“Infant Joy” exposes the authoritarianism in Rousseauist “concern,” 
“caring,” and “understanding,” today’s self-righteous liberal values. In 
the poem’s eerie dialogue I hear George Herbert’s homoerotic inten¬ 
sities. In its blank encapsulization I feel claustrophobic Spenserian 
embowerment. “Infant Joy” comes from the rape cycle of The Faerie 
Queene. It is the provocative vulnerability of the fleeing Florimell, the 
purity that sucks filth into its wake. “Infant Joy” is a Rousseauist vac¬ 
uum into which Sadean nature is about to rush. 

Blake’s infant has no name, no persona. It is barely individuated. 
Infant joy is what Blake later calls a “state,” a condition of being. We 
feel rawness, sensitivity, defenseless passivity. Rousseauist childhood is 
no blessing. Sensory experience is the avenue of sadomasochism. “In¬ 
fant Joy” recreates the dumb muscle state of our physicality, the readi¬ 
ness which converts into sex, or rather the surging power that is sex. 
George Eliot says, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary 
human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s 
heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of 
silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stu¬ 
pidity.” 2 “Infant Joy” removes the buffering between persons and be¬ 
ings. Eliot imagines a perfect perceptual openness and a sensory flood 
into a receptacle too small to contain it. The egoless softness of the 
poem awakes in us Kessler’s sensation of overwhelming power, which 
we unconsciously check. Sharpening the senses inflames them—and 
here comes sadism. Rousseauist responsiveness and nurturance auto¬ 
matically flip over into their opposites. 

“Infant Joy” has the moral emptiness of Spenser’s femininity, a space 

Sex Bound and Unbound 


cleared in nature. It is like the still heart of a geode, rimmed with 
crystalline teeth. In “Infant Joy” a devouring presence waits, a Blakean 
tiger: the reader. This is one of the uncanniest poems in literature. 
Seemingly so slight and transparent, it harbors something sinister and 
maniacal. “Infant Joy” is strongly ritualistic. Kessler calls it a “caress.” 
The poem’s hypnotic repetitions are a series of soothing gestures, like 
rubbing a lantern to make a genie appear. The poem is a spell mate¬ 
rializing a dark power, latent in the reader. “Infant Joy” is a daemoniz- 
ing poem: it daemonizes the reader, drawing him into the rapacious 
cycle of natural process. By making the reader a sadist, it subverts his 
complacent trust in his own morality and benevolence. Blake was con¬ 
temptuous of “Mercy, Pity, Peace.” “Infant Joy” is a parodistic critique 
of Rousseauism. As much as Blake’s chimney-sweep poems, it indicts 
the oppressive paternalism of society’s self-appointed guardians. Every 
gesture of love is an assertion of power. There is no selflessness or self- 
sacrifice, only refinements of domination. 

The psycho sexual design of “Infant Joy” is hovering . Hovering is the 
relation of speaker to infant, reader to poem. The evil droning menace 
in such proximity is shown in Blake’s watercolor, God Creating Adam 
(fig. 31). Winged Urizen, Blake’s tyrant Jehovah, hovers with a smother¬ 
ing weight above corpselike Adam, stretched flat as if crucified. God is a 
vampire snatching back man’s Promethean fire. The picture seems to 
show an unnatural sex act, homosexual and sadomasochistic. Criticism 
is squeamish about admitting these perversities in Blake. Hovering is 
always emotionally and sexually problematic. It is everywhere in the 
Late Romantic voyeur, Walt Whitman, who imagines himself wan¬ 
dering all night, “swiftly and noiselessly stepping and stopping.” He 
bends “with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers”; he listens to the 
quiet breathing of children; he passes his hands “soothingly to and fro” 
over the suffering and restless. Elsewhere, lifting the gauze over a 
cradle, he stares “a long time” at the infant and “silently” brushes away 
flies (The Sleepers; Song of Myself, 8). When Wordsworth looks out from 
Westminster Bridge, the city’s sleepers are only inferred. Whitman’s 
sleepers are warm, sensuous bodies. Whitman’s all-embracing Rous- 
seauist love is Romantic vampirism, scopophiliac tyranny. The poet’s 
eye is omnipotent, while its objects are passive and defenseless, without 
thought or identity. The nearness with which Whitman approaches the 
sleepers is predicated on their unconsciousness. He makes them femi¬ 
nine objects of his godlike delectation. Romantic love—all love—is sex 
and power. In nearness we enter each other’s animal aura. There is 
magic there, both black and white. 


2 7J 

51. William Blake, God Creating Adam, 1795. 

Violating the psychic space of his sleepers, Whitman rapes them. 
Wordsworth too remembers his boyhood “merciless ravage” of a nut 
grove, a “virgin scene” that he left a Spenserian “mutilated bower” 
(“Nutting”). Trespass is always subliminally erotic. Piercing a tem- 
enos—a sacred space of mind, body, bedchamber, or nature—is always 
a domination and defilement. Blake’s “Infant Joy” evokes an impulse 
toward criminal trespass. Reading it, we hover at the edge of a forbid¬ 
den locus of experience. We hold our breath. We uneasily sense the 
aesthetic contrast between our adult grossness and the infant’s delicacy, 
eroticized by the poem’s implied touching. The infant exists in Blake’s 
Beulah state of blissful passivity, the numb groping of polymorphous 
perversity. The infant is blind. But we aggressively see. Along the track 
of our seeing skids our unbrakeable will. 

The same dialectic of blind whiteness and aggressive eye occurs in 
The Faerie Queene , where the boisterous cannibals hang over sleeping 
Serena to study her “dainty flesh,” which the poet gives a silky sheen 
(VI. viii. 36-43). Is this the source of Blake’s poem? The violation in 
“Infant Joy” is the exposure of something private, unprotected, quiver¬ 
ing, and moist. An infant two days old is barely sexually differentiated. 


Sex Bound and Unbound 

It is still muzzy from the womb. “Infant Joy” brings us face to face with 
the biologically fundamental. The preconscious simplicity of Blake’s 
infant is almost cellular. In fact, the poem is a cell, one simple cell of 
protoplasmic life. “Infant Joy” unveils a physiological mystery. We have 
penetrated into a female realm, as Melville does in Tartarus of Maids or 
Leonardo in his drawing of a fetus. This is proved by Blake’s drawing of 
the poem, where an infant lies in the lap of a hovering mother and both 
are swallowed up in the flamelike maw of a giant flower, Blake’s rapa¬ 
cious nature (fig. 32). Thus the infant’s powerlessness is a version of the 
chimney sweeps’ enslavement. The womblike “Infant Joy” is a surgical 
opening up of a female body, nature’s organic machine. “Infant Joy” is 
the secret sex-crime of a ravisher-poet. It looks forward to Blake’s 
overtly sadistic Mental Traveller ; where the “Babe” of humanity is 
handed over to old mother nature, surgeon and torturer. The Mental 
Traveller literalizes the authoritarian manipulations of “Infant Joy.” 
Blake corrects Rousseau: man is bom into his chains, the mother-bom 
body binding us to creature comfort, sex, and pain. 

In Songs of Experience (1794), “Infant Joy” advances to sexual matu¬ 
rity. Blake’s response to “Infant Joy” is not “Infant Sorrow” but “The 
Sick Rose.” Here the Spenserian embowerment of Blake’s newborn 
shifts from Rousseau to Sade: 

O Rose thou art sick. 

The invisible worm, 

That flies in the night 
In the howling storm: 

Has found out thy bed 
Of crimson joy: 

And his dark secret love 
Does thy life destroy. 

“The Sick Rose” is Spenser’s Bower of Bliss destroyed by sex war. The 
literary convention of female flight and male pursuit, satirized by Spen¬ 
ser in the ever-fleeing Florimell, reveals its innate hostility. Woman’s 
flirtatious arts of self-concealment mean man’s approach must take the 
form of rape. The phallus becomes the conquerer worm, death’s agent. 
Withdrawal and concealment are always negative in Blake. Here they 
provoke sadistic attack, partly a hallucination by the reclusive rose. The 
rose is a narcissistically convoluted psyche. Female genitals are tradi¬ 
tionally symbolized by the queen of flowers, from the medieval Mystic 
Rose of Mary to the rock classic, “Sally, Go Round the Roses.” Blake 
sees solipsism as the danger in female sexuality. The rose’s exclusive- 


32. William Blake, Infant Joy, 
from Songs of Innocence and of 
Experience , 1794. 


ness blends fear, shame, and pride. Its layered petals are a form of self¬ 
population. That the rose’s “bed of crimson joy” suggests masturbatoiy 
pleasure is well accepted by critics. For Blake the rose’s self-completion 
is perverse and sterile. The rose is a sexual schismatic, making division 
where there should be wholeness and unity in nature. It is thus an early 
version of the solipsistic hermaphrodites of Blake’s prophetic books. 

Blake’s masturbatory rose belongs to the tradition begun in Egypt 
where autoeroticism is a method of cosmogony. Blake sees a sexually 
private world as a prison cell. The rose is sick because, she thinks, the 
communion of sex drains and obliterates her identity. Blake’s own 
ambivalence toward sex produces the cryptic duality of the poem. Male 
fear of woman’s self-containment is written all over mythology and 
culture. It is male, not female identity that is annihilated in the night- 
storm of nature. The fascination ofjvoman’s autonomy is plain in 
Ingres’ The Turkish Bath , a witty parallel to Blake’s rose poem (fig. 33). 
Ingres’ painting is oddly round, a rose window or Madonna tondo 
turned pagan peephole, through which we spy the plump nude bodies 
of a dozen women amorously entwined, like lesbian flower petals. It is a 
snaky Medusa head, steamy with Asiatic lewdness. Trying to liberate 
sex from society, Blake keeps running back into the cul-de-sac of female 
sexuality. Courtly convention alone did not make woman “the hidden.” 


Sex Bound and Unbound 

33. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Turkish Bath, 1862. 

Nature makes woman’s body a cavern of the unseen, divined by sado¬ 
masochistic mystery religion. 

The ambiguous “Sick Rose” qualifies the sexual assertions of Blake’s 
earlier The Book ofThel (1789). A cloud tells the virgin Thel she is “the 
food of worms”: “Every thing that lives, / Lives not alone, nor for itself.” 
Nature as harmonious interrelationship: this Buddhist perception is not 
sustained in Blake, who is too conflicted about the dominance of female 
nature. In “The Sick Rose,” Thel’s worms are phallic heavenly mes¬ 
sengers, miming the growth cycle. Blake thinks the being living alone 
and for itself is sick because it rejects the strife of contraries by which 
energy evolves. Thel’s book ends in hysterical retreat, as she jumps from 
her seat and dashes shrieking back to her native valleys. Blake com¬ 
bines the seat-stuck virgin of Milton’s Comus with Spenser’s fleeing 
Florimell and Belphoebe, who disappears mid-sentence. Blake regards 
virginity as a perverse fetish. He wants to believe Thel’s rejection of 



sexuality is childish, a swerve from menarche and fruitfulness. Thus 
Blake’s chastity is diametrically opposite to that of Spenser and Shake¬ 
speare, for whom it signifies spiritual integrity and force. Like Sade, 
Blake sees chastity as unnatural, energy-killing. But in urging Thel, a 
sick rose, to cure herself by surrendering to communion, Blake is closer 
to Shakespeare of the comedies, where all are given in marriage, than 
he is to his fellow Romantic poets, for whom solitude is imaginative 
perfection. Shakespeare, subordinating sex to society, makes a Renais¬ 
sance escape from the problem confronting Blake. Trying to eliminate 
society but redeem sex, Blake keeps finding himself in Leonardo’s 
rockscape. Every inch he saves for sex is lost in the desolate mile of 
mother nature. 

Blake’s “London,” like Emily Dickinson’s “Our journey 
had advanced,” is one of those rare lyric poems that achieve epic sweep. 
The Hebrew prophet wanders through modem Babylon, which he 
denounces with the voice of Rousseau. In “London,” institutions, sym¬ 
bolized by church and palace, oppress individuals. Their impersonal 
walls are deaf to the chimney sweep’s cry and soldier’s sigh. For Blake, 
buildings are society’s face, abstract, mechanical, lifeless. “London” 
has a radical new way of seeing grand works of urban architecture as 
blank, sinister monoliths. Blake prefigures Baudelaire and Kafka in his 
vision of the dead night-world of the modern city, today an arid grid of 
glass and concrete. Society’s indifference to the suffering poor paints it 
black. Blake’s church is a whited sepulchre stained with vice, the soot 
that will not out. From the sky falls a plague of red rain, the dying 
soldier’s last breath wafted from a foreign battlefield and turning from 
breeze to drizzle over foggy London. The nameless massacred inno¬ 
cents leave their mark in red writing on the royal wall, their blood but 
also Pharaoh’s, French terror leaping to England. The city weeps but 
does not recognize its own tears. Church and palace are a frozen or 
petrified face. Emotionless stone walls are what Blake’s prophetic books 
call “the limit of contraction.” If the palace face or facade runs with the 
blood of sacrificial lambs, then the poem is a Veronica’s veil, imprinted 
with the face of suffering. The trickling blood is Christ’s, for industrial 
society is un-Christian. George Herbert tells death, “Our Saviour’s 
death did put some blood / Into thy face.” Modem London, drained of 
Christian compassion, is spiritually dead. 

Blake’s cold-walled city-faces are obviously sexless. They are sexless 
personae, looking forward to Emily Dickinson’s pitiless clock faces, 
whose rule of time is enforced by church, state, father, and death. 

28 o 

Sex Bound and Unbound 

Blake’s church and palace walls are self-armouring calcifications. His 
“Human Form Divine” is obliterated in the magnification of persons 
into institutions, coarse insensate colossi. City buildings are manufac¬ 
tured objects, a Romantic mode of androgyne. “London” logically ends 
in the syphilitic streetwalker, since she bears the displaced sexuality of 
respectable society. She is diseased because her sex is both secret and 
commercial. Blake’s harlot is nature, exiled from the city and therefore 
returning under cover of night to stalk and prey. 

One of Blake’s remarks about whores: “In a wife I would desire / 
What in whores is always found / The lineaments of Gratified desire.” 
Stone tablets, stony face. Blake thinks religious repression of sex makes 
misery and hypocrisy. Lower-class whores, then and now, sop up the 
male run-off from “decent” middle-class marriage. Men chase by night 
those they will not greet by day. For Blake, the whore is another victim 
or scapegoat, like exploited children and soldiers. She is the third 
emblematic oppressed individual of “London.” But in another way, she 
is the poem’s third institution. Outcast and vagrant, she will extrude her 
own housey shell in the nineteenth centuiy, era of the courtesan. Blake 
is the first artist to recognize the whore as a kindred spirit. In Paris, 
artists and whores will dwell together in creative mass marriage for over 
a century. In Zola’s Nana (1880), the courtesan presides from the apex 
of public hierarchy. Church, palace, harlot: Blake’s sequence recalls the 
ritual temple prostitution of the Asiatic Great Mother, whom he nor¬ 
mally despises. Is his harlot “youthful” because she is a vampire drunk 
with the male blood of the prior stanza? The “midnight streets” of 
“London” are the labyrinthine bowels of the earth mother, from which 
Icaran imagination tries to escape. The poem joins ancient archetype to 
a modernist panorama of hostile architecture. The combination recurs 
in Kafka, where the bureaucratic labyrinth of the tyrant father is dream¬ 
ily one with the womblike rooms of the abandoning mother. Blake’s 
“Marriage hearse,” from which Emily Dickinson will write one of her 
greatest poems, is the mobile carriage of our own death-tending bodies. 
The earth mother, both womb and tomb, has the last word in Blake’s 
poem, as she does everywhere and at all times. 

In The Mental Traveller ; Blake moves the epic conflicts of 
“London” into the open air of stormy nature. Institutions, once his 
Rousseauist concern, fade into irrelevance. The Mental Traveller is 
Blake’s recognition of the insuperable problem of nature, which he 
once tried to tame into a romance of mutually rewarding sex. I think the 
sadomasochism of this poem comes from Blake’s reading of The Faerie 



Queene , whose decadent brutalities he understood as no modem critic 
has. The Mental Traveller is Sade made poetry. The acrid clarity of 
language is sharply modern or Late Romantic. Blake is way beyond 
Rousseau. He answers himself, as Coleridge will answer and correct 
Wordsworth. Bloom says of The Mental Traveller: “All the males in the 
poem are one man, humanity, men and women together. All the fe¬ 
males are nature, the confinements of the human.” 3 The Mental Trav¬ 
eller is a Sadean critique of love and sex. I insist that the genders of 
Blake’s sexual personae must be accepted as dramatically authoritative 
in their own right. 

The Mental Traveller is a cycle of sexual cannibalism enacted by a 
male and a female figure, who attack and retreat in obsessive rhythms 
of victory and defeat. A boy babe is given to “a Woman Old,” who nails 
him down upon a rock, binds iron thorns around his head, pierces his 
hands and feet, and cuts his heart out “to make it feel both cold & heat.” 
“Her fingers number every Nerve.” She lives on his “shrieks & cries” 
and “grows young as he grows old.” Now the cycle reverses: “he rends 
up his Manacles / And binds her down for his delight.” The poem moves 
by systaltic throbbing of the heart. Blake’s oscillations between power 
and weakness are vortices moving in opposite directions—the source of 
Yeats’s theory of historical gyres. Each sadistic act by Blake’s female is a 
portent of her future torment and indeed the occult ritual which invokes 
it. The entire poem is a ritual. Its systematic cataloguing of atrocities 
resembles the itemizations of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Like Sade, 
Blake foreshadows Frazer’s anthropological syncretism. The Mental 
Traveller recreates the bloody rites of the Great Mother. Nature, not 
society, is humanity’s ultimate arena. The Mental Traveller has renewed 
life in one of rock’s major lyrics, a song it surely influenced, the Rolling 
Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” 

Blake’s newborn babe goes straight to his crucifixion. Innocence is 
ravaged by experience, a Madonna turned hag. Rebel Ore always ages 
into tyrant Urizen. Blake has learned from the moral decay of the 
French Revolution, whose sadism betrayed its patron, Rousseau. The 
babe’s tortures recall the legends of Prometheus, Jesus, and Loki. Blake 
daringly superimposes classical, Christian, and Norse mythologies 
without giving Christianity its usual preeminence. Masochistic male 
sufferers, whom we saw in Rousseau, Goethe, and Kleist, are profuse in 
Romanticism. Here the babe is handed over to a grim tutor for his 
education, as Achilles is given to the centaur. The witch of The Mental 
Traveller is the first malign governess of nineteenth-century literature. 
The babe’s training or Bildung is harshly physical. Blake anticipates 


Sex Bound and Unbound 

Freud in grounding intellect in the body. In his earlier “To Tirzah,” 
witch and mother are one: “Thou Mother of my Mortal part / With 
cruelty didst mould my Heart, / And with false self-deceiving tears, / 
Didst bind my Nostrils Eyes & Ears.” Nature, weaving the tissues of the 
body, wraps us at birth in her shroud. 

Nailing the babe down by his five senses, the witch “catches his 
shrieks in cups of gold.” A gold cup is chillingly archetypal. It is virginal, 
vaginal, eucharistic. Thel’s golden bowl is her selfish self-preservation. 
It is the organic morally petrified, like “London” ’s walls. The witch’s 
miserly gold cups are her infatuated self-regard and self-divinization, 
the sexual solipsism of the sick rose. A poisoned cup: the Whore of 
Babylon holds a gold cup scummy wdth fornications; Loki’s wife cups up 
the venom of a serpent hung above his bound body. Blake’s witch is a 
vampire catching spurts of infant blood in order to drink them. We saw T 
in “London” how Blake magically turns sound to sight, sighs and cries 
into running blood. The gold cups of The Mental Traveller are its own 
stanzas brimming with the agonies of humanity. 

At the start of The Mental Traveller ; the dominance of female over 
male seems so complete as to be insuperable. The babe is inert matter 
manipulated by a female First Mover. She knows him through sadistic 
touching. Normally, femade bodies are the stringed instrument plucked 
by males. Here mother nature is a master hairpist madring dark music to 
herself. By his torments, the male gains his identity, still missing in the 
newborn of “Infant Joy.” His gender is reinforced by nature’s biological 
authoritariamism. The Mental Traveller proceeds by sexual peripeties. 
The first is a pieta, where the old witch becomes a virgin with her 
“bleeding youth.” The Great Mother, mourning her son-lover, is wTes- 
tled down and bound in turn. Now made exults in woman’s masochistic 
vulnerability. Service has switched on the Sadean tennis court. Gender 
flaimes and fades in The Mental Traveller. Dominance and submission, 
nature’s law, compulsively structures the poem. We saw a similar pat¬ 
tern in Kleist’s Penthesilea. The Mental Traveller has a choreographic 
rituadism. It’s like a parody of ballroom dancing where the lady keeps 
trying to lead. At the end, we are sent back to the start of the poem to 
read it again—a trope Joyce adopts for Finnegans Wake. The Mental 
Traveller is a uroboros mimicking the circularity of natural process. 
Each sex devours the other. 

Blake’s Mental Traveller shows sex as a barbaric ritual drama where 
the performers periodically exchange masks. The poem is energized by 
explosive returns of the repressed. Woman’s provocative flight recurs 
late in the poem. She is a stag fleeing through her own self-planted 



thicket of fear, images straight from The Faerie Queene. She is the sick 
rose wrapped in menacing pubic thorns. Her coquettish “arts of Love & 
Hate” come from the poetry of courtly love. We are bom into sex war but 
learn to prolong it. The thicket is the theatrical personae of Petrarchan 
love, intellectualizing desire. For Blake, multiple personae are sterile 
rusing deceptions. 

The first scene of The Mental Traveller , with its sadomasochistic 
bondage, has a clashing industrial character. The hag performs her 
ghastly tasks with businesslike efficiency and managerial zeal. The rock 
is a torture rack or anvil, an image in other Blake poems. We are all on 
the anvil, hammered by mother nature. Nature is a factory, a satanic 
mill which turns men into robots. The infant, his heart cut out, is 
crowned with iron thorns, reminiscent not only of Christ but of Spen¬ 
ser’s robot Talus, “the iron man.” In his painting of The Faerie Queene , 
Blake shows Talus with a burr of metal spikes about his head. Heart and 
brain aborted, his maleness crushed by enforced passivity, the babe is an 
unsexed manufactured object. 

The frightful opening of The Mental Traveller is a brazen incantation 
of female triumph of the will. I find nothing in the poem suggesting that 
the sexual cycle can be ended or transcended. Criticism has over¬ 
philosophized The Mental Traveller and made it moralistic and didactic, 
rarely Romantic aims. The poem has overwhelming power as ferocious 
psychodrama. Its technique is surreal sexual cinema. The Mental Trav¬ 
eller is a ritual of riddance, an externalization of conflict. Blake sets the 
brute sex cycle going, like a perpetual motion machine, then lets it spin 
off into space to devour itself. The poem is circle magic. But the exter¬ 
nalization did not work, for Blake had to return to the same theme again 
and again. His poems got longer and longer, as if epic scale could finally 
fix the matter. The unfixable theme is universal female power. Sade and 
Blake’s sadomasochistic systems are rebuttals of Rousseau’s maternal 
naturism. The awful energy of Blake’s sinister females is equivalent to 
the eerie stillness of Goethe’s brooding Mothers. Nineteenth-century 
Romantic literature and art are dominated by the femfne fatale. Blake 
feels this coming and tries to stop it. Ironically, in grappling with mother 
nature, Blake has not so much laid her ghost as raised and immortalized 
it. Our movements against nature lock us to her. Blake’s daemonized 
poetry gathers a storm cloud over sex that will never clear. 

Like The Mental Traveller ; “The Crystal Cabinet” was 
not published until 1863. Thus it could not have influenced Keats’s “La 
Belle Dame Sans Merci,” which it so resembles in dramatic form that 


Sex Bound and Unbound 

the two poems must reveal a deep structure of Romantic sexual imagi¬ 
nation. “The Crystal Cabinet” is narrated by a male victim of female 
entrapment. A maiden catches him dancing in the wild. She puts him 
into her “Cabinet” and locks him up with “a golden Key.” The cabinet, 
made of gold, pearl, and crystal, contains “a World” under “a little 
lovely Moony Night.” Gold cup, gold bowl, gold cabinet. The prison is 
the vagina. The key is the male’s own penis, which woman steals to 
make herself hermaphroditically complete. Sexual keys appear in Mil¬ 
ton’s Comus , as well as Goethe’s Faust. Blake’s golden key is a golden 
bough, Vergil’s passport to a chthonian underworld. Gold is also the 
male’s own narcissism. Blake elsewhere compares the phallus to “a 
pompous High Priest” entering the Holy of Holies or secret shrine of 
the vagina (Jerusalem 69:44). 

“The Crystal Cabinet” opens on the male’s carefree childhood, when 
he lives in the body without ambivalence or fear. But sexual initiation 
ends his trusting view of nature. His rite de passage is into containment, 
luxurious but humiliating. The maiden trapping him like bird or but¬ 
terfly is a collector, a connoisseur with a museum of sexual specimens. 
She is like Circe with her stable of swine or Omphale with her male 
domestics. The maiden’s calculation is decadent. She is like the lordly 
Late Romantic collectors of Sade, Poe, and Huysmans. The crystal 
cabinet is a reliquary storing hosts or saints’ bones. It is like Donne’s 
“well wrought ume,” both poem and funeral vase mingling the ashes of 
canonized lovers. But Blake’s ashes are far more bitter. The male is 
martyred, a lamb led to slaughter. The vagina is a sexual crematorium. 
The crystal cabinet destroys by miniaturizing (cutting an erection down 
to size). It contains another world and another maiden: “Translucent 
lovely shining clear / Threefold each in the other closd / O what a 
pleasant trembling fear.” Microcosms are dangerous in Blake because 
they are separatist and solipsistic. The crystal cabinet is like Spenser’s 
“world of glass,” both mirror and crystal ball. The pregnant tear of 
Donne’s “Valediction: of weeping” contains the beloved’s reflection and 
also “a globe” of the world. In Blake, the male enters a looking-glass 
world of sexual anti-matter. His pleasant fear is his masochistic delecta¬ 
tion at female dominance. The male willfully prolonging his sexual 
subordination makes his own hell. 

The crystal cabinet requires man’s voluptuous self-surrender. When 
he asserts himself, the illusion falls to pieces. The cabinet bursts, and he 
is “a weeping Babe upon the wild.” Near him reclines a “Weeping 
Woman pale.” The cabinet is Spenser’s torpid Bower of Bliss, here 
accidentally destroyed by a devotee. Like the erotic idylls of Keats’s 


28 j 

“Lamia” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” Blake’s poem ends in cold, 
shame-filled awakening. A movement toward the illicit produces a 
violent movement outward into desolation. The primary model is Adam 
and Eve’s expulsion from the garden. We see the same pattern in the 
finale of Moby-Dick , where Ahab’s attempt to pierce the heart of nature 
by harpooning the white whale ends in catastrophe and vast, empty 
silence. “The Crystal Cabinet” says there is no way to understand 
nature. Every son is expelled from every mother. The more he searches 
for her through sex, the more she recedes from him. Bloom places the 
cabinet’s daemonically threefold hostess in “a carnival of mirrors.” 4 I 
think of the climax of Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1948), 
where Rita Hayworth as the siren of the labyrinth appears in dizzying 
profusion, until the hall of mirrors, like the crystal cabinet, is shattered 
by her angry male pursuer. Blake’s threefold maiden is triple Hecate, 
ominous and nocturnal. In Blake, any numerical multiple is diseased. 
Unity is paradigmatic. The maiden’s “threefold Smile,” like Kali’s many 
arms, represents nature’s metamorphoses. But it is also multiple sexual 
personae, for Blake always artificial and mendacious. Hybrid forms in 
Blake are wanton trick lenses, suggesting vain self-contemplation. The 
maiden of “The Crystal Cabinet” overpopulates herself, like the sick 
rose. Unlike Shakespeare of the transvestite comedies, Blake opposes 
psychic diversification as decadent. God may say, “Be fruitful, and 
multiply,” but Blake says, “Multiply, and be fruitless.” 

The male narrator of “The Crystal Cabinet” believes he has entered 
sexual maturity. But as he tries to claim adult authority, he is propelled 
back to infancy. He is the helpless babe starting The Mental Traveller. 
The weeping woman is the mother of his Nativity and Lamentation. 
“The Crystal Cabinet” ends like Giorgione’s The Tempest (1505), where 
a nude woman nurses a child under a thundery sky. Blake’s cycle is 
replayed by D. H. Lawrence in Women in Love , where Gerald’s violent 
intercourse with Gudrun strangely transforms him into “an infant... at 
its mother’s breast.” 5 Restored to the landscape where he was found, the 
male of “The Crystal Cabinet” undergoes a melancholy reabsorption 
into biology, symbolized by a pale woman half-dead from labor pains. 
Sex pleasure, sex torture: it’s all the same to mother nature. 

The crystal cabinet is a razed Temple of sex, from which the faithful 
are dispersed into the wilderness. Architecturally, Blake’s cabinet is 
unique. Primitive depiction of female genitals is stark and unadorned. 
Fertility religion makes pubic deltas or ridged ovoids. Literature and art 
follow the medieval Venusberg tradition of the Tannhauser saga, where 
the mons veneris echoes earth’s rounded hills. Western depiction of 


Sex Bound and Unbound 

male genitals tends to use fabricated rather than natural shapes— 
swords, spears, guns, herms, even (in Melville) a chimney. Whether 
Amazon or Hedda Gabler, the woman taking up a man’s weapon her- 
maphroditizes herself. Western masculinity defies female nature. 

A phallic totem is easily made and rather impressive. But how to 
achieve a female sex symbolism of equal dignity? Melville’s Tartarus of 
Maids , for example, though sympathetic to women’s plight, is a some¬ 
what nauseating tour of the physiological waterworks. Woman as civili¬ 
zation rather than nature must be represented by her secondary rather 
than primary sex organs. As I noted of Egyptian art, the female breast as 
shapely adornment rather than saggy bladder accompanies the inven¬ 
tion of femininity, sign of advancing culture. After prehistory, the breast 
takes over western female symbolism. Remarkably, Blake’s crystal cabi¬ 
net imagines female genitals at a high degree of artifice. There are few 
parallels. Female genitalia are not beautiful by any aesthetic standard. 
In fact, as I argued earlier, the idea of beauty is a defensive swerve from 
the ugliness of sex and nature. Female genitals are literally grotesque. 
That is, they are of the grotto, earth fissures leading to the chthonian 
cavern of the womb. Italians have a special feeling for grottos and are 
constantly building them behind homes or churches. It is part of our 
pagan heritage, our ancestral memory of earth-cult. Female genitals 
inspire in the observer, depending upon sexual orientation, that stirring 
in the bowels which is either disgust or lust. “The Crystal Cabinet” 
shows lust flipping over to disgust. Blake’s golden female genitals are a 
work of art—but here that is evil. His radical revision of traditional 
iconography is produced by his distrust of society. For him, literature 
and art reinforce the hostile game-playing of love; courtly convention 
traps the free energy of sex. But archetype thwarts Blake’s intention. 
The male, thrusting into the cabinet’s sexual center, sees where he came 
from and is horrified. I reject criticism’s tidy assessment of Blake’s sex 
theory, where redeemed imagination opposes and reconciles civiliza¬ 
tion and nature. Poetry is written and read with emotion, not mind. 
Emotionally, Blake’s world is out of control. 

Blake and Lawrence have reputations as sexual revolutionaries. But 
both were agitated by the threat of female dominance, which their 
works prove rather than disprove. Blake is our greatest poet of sexual 
anxiety. Bloom rightly says of “The Crystal Cabinet,” “The speaker has 
suffered only loss, through seeking in sexual experience a finality it 
cannot afford anyone.” 6 Bloom’s pessimistic realism is truer to Blake 
than Northrop Frye’s dreams of sexual harmony. My generation has 
seen the workings of sexual freedom not in an imagined future but a 



chaotic present. Hence I value Blake not as a prophet of sexual libera¬ 
tion but as a magus who has studied the secrets of nature and seen the 
outrageous enslavements of our life in the body. The Mental Traveller 
and “The Crystal Cabinet” dramatize the limitations of sex. There is no 
sex without yielding to nature. And nature is a female domain. Blake’s 
dreadful fate was to see the abyss from which most men shrink: the 
infantilism in all male heterosexuality. Criticism’s disregard of Blake’s 
blatant sadomasochism has censored him. Like Spenser, he left a mes¬ 
sage that remains unread. 

Blake’s long prophetic poems have a curious psychologi¬ 
cal system. Bear with me for a synopsis hacked out of the jungle of Blake 
scholarship, much of it frustratingly contradictory. 

Human beings suffer division in the fallen realm of Experience, 
which is marked by the dramatic interaction of entities called Emana¬ 
tion and Spectre. The Emanation is projected cathexis, a cinema of the 
unquiet mind. It is desire longing for realization. Emanations can be of 
either sex, but the most important ones are female. In Innocence, the 
female Emanation is integrated within the self. In Experience, the 
Emanation must migrate outward (i.e., emanate). A self which im¬ 
prisons its Emanation becomes solipsistic and hermaphroditic. Once 
the Emanation achieves outwardness, it must not escape so far as to 
become alienated from the self. This would be the erotic perversity of 
female flight and concealment, by which woman dominates man. Spir¬ 
itual health is the correct positioning of self to Emanation, in loving 
marriage. The archenemy of happy union between self and Emanation 
is the Spectre, whom Blake identifies with rationalism. One may be 
turned into a Spectre by the desertion of one’s Emanation. But just as 
often, the Spectre pursues and haunts the self. Blake’s Spectre is always 
male. Hence it is an early example of the nineteenth-century dop- 
pelganger, like the stem double tracking Poe’s William Wilson. When 
dominated by the Spectre, the self becomes a hermaphroditic Selfhood, 
whom Blake calls Satan or Death. In this state, the created world is at its 
most remote and densely material or contracted. 

Until commentary becomes simpler and more persuasive, Blake’s 
long poems will languish unread, known only by Blake specialists, the 
same parochialization suffered by Spenser. It should be immediately 
evident—though nowhere pointed out in central Blake studies—that 
Blake’s Spectres and Emanations are equivalent to the ghosts of the 
contemporaneous Gothic novel. The late eighteenth century was the 
end of something and the beginning of something. The disintegration 


Sex Bound and Unbound 

of the Apollonian Enlightenment produced a psychic fragmentation or 
splintering. In the static psychology of the early eighteenth centuiy, 
character was constructed of building blocks of fixed “qualities.” A 
century earlier, Donne illustrated the rational unity and simplicity of 
the Christian model of personality in “Holy Sonnet I,” where the soul is 
tugged up toward heaven and down toward hell, while the poet looks 
forward toward death and backward toward his sinful life. Directions 
are resolutely foursquare, like a compass. The moral universe is geo¬ 
metrically coherent and intelligible. In Blake, however, there is no up or 
down. Tracks of emotional force are not rectangular but spiral: Man¬ 
nerist images of the “Vortex” recur. The Spectre veers off at an eccentric 
angle from the self. Blake’s fluid world is full of disjunctions of scale, 
gross expansions and stifling diminutions. It has the spongy relativism 
of modem physics. 

In Blake the soul has split, so that the prophetic poems ask what is the 
“true” self. This is a new question in history 7 , more sweeping than the 
multiple impersonations of the Renaissance, where social order was still 
a moral value. In Blake, territorial war is waged among parts of the self. 
His characters are in identity crisis, Rousseau’s invention. In his Spec¬ 
tres and Emanations, Blake is doing allegorically what the nineteenth- 
century novel will do naturalistically, documenting the modulations 
of emotion. Blake rejects Judeo-Christian morality. Nevertheless, he 
wants to integrate sexuality with right action. But sex, which Chris¬ 
tianity correctly assigns to the daemonic realm, always escapes moral 
control. The paradoxes of Blake’s eerie Gothic psychodrama of Spectre 
and Emanation arise from the impossibility of his mission: to redeem 
sex from its miring in mother nature. 

Fallen Experience constantly generates phantom selves which cloud 
perception. Parodic pregnancies abound in Blake. The failure to ema¬ 
nate is like a perversely prolonged pregnancy, where being is choked. 
Blake’s psychodrama takes the form of unnatural sex acts of bizarre 
surrealism. Blake is Sade’s peer in sexual imagination. Take, for exam¬ 
ple, Los’s capture of his fleeing Emanation, Enitharmon: “Eternity 
shudder’d when they saw, / Man begetting his likeness, / On his own 
divided image” (Urizen 19:14—16). I am impatient with critical over¬ 
stress of the allegory here, where Los is time and Enitharmon space. On 
the primary emotional level of poetry, we see a violent public sex act, 
from which the horrified universe cannot avert its eyes. Incestuous self¬ 
insemination: the grappling duo is a new 7 Khepera, the masturbatory 
Egyptian cosmos-maker. Actors and audience are a sexual octopus of 
many legs and many eyes. 



The contest between male Spectre and female Emanation is archaic 
ritual combat. I find homosexual overtones in the betrayal of the self 
into a queasy spectral world ruled by dark, deceiving male figures. Note 
the elegance with which Blake’s Spectre theory fits Shakespeare’s 
Othello. A conspiratorial Spectre, Iago, is homoerotically obsessed with 
splitting Othello, through jealous fears, from his Emanation, Desde- 
mona. (Jealousy and fear are the Spectres’ regular weapons.) Othello, 
cleaving to his Spectre instead of casting him off, destroys himself. He 
ends by killing not his Spectre but his Emanation. Another example is 
Joseph Losey’s film, The Servant (1963, screenplay by Harold Pinter 
from a novel by Robin Maugham). An upper-class bachelor is domi¬ 
nated by a homosexually insinuating male Spectre, his housekeeper 
and valet (Dirk Bogarde), who coolly and systematically drives away the 
master’s fiancee. The fiancee, Blake’s Emanation, is the master’s link 
with reality. Severed from her, he sinks beneath the Spectre’s power into 
enervation and decadence, Blake’s solipsism. In Blake, the self must 
choose between joyous heterosexual marriage with a female Emana¬ 
tion or evil homosexual bonding with a male Spectre. Homosexuality is 
negative and narcissistic for Blake because it evades the fruitful opposi¬ 
tion of sexual contraries. 

Blake’s fallen world is full of delusive personae, like swindling “bub¬ 
ble” speculations of the nineteenth century. Vala, for example, is a 
taxidermic decoy, like Spenser’s False Florimell. She vampiristically 
captures and absorbs Albion’s libidinal energy. The self must make its 
way past frauds and extortionists who lure the psyche into committing 
spiritual capital to unsound investments. Blake sees sexual personae as 
false advertisement. As a moralist, Blake is a spiritualist. As a sexualist, 
he is a materialist. Never the twain shall meet. Arguments with one’s 
self make art. Blake’s poetry is border strife, communiques from the 
endless guerrilla war between sex and good intentions. 

The “Hermaphrodites” of Blake’s prophetic poems may 
be the most shrilly negative androgynes in literature and art. Blake’s 
attitude toward sexually dual figures is mixed, since he thinks of prelap- 
sarian man as androgynous. Crabb Robinson reported a “rambling' 
conversation with Blake about life before and after the Fall: the poet 
spoke of “a union of sexes in man as in Ovid, an androgynous state, in 
which I could not follow him.” For Blake, the sexes should be fused only 
in the unfallen world. Albion, like the Kabbalistic Adam Kadmon, 
contains both sexes because he precedes history. When history stops, 
Albion will regain his dual gender. 

Sex Bound and Unbound 


Though he may allude to a primeval hermaphrodite, Blake puts lit¬ 
tle stress on it in his poetry. Of far more import are the monstrous 
hermaphrodites of Experience. The hermaphroditic Satan, “black & 
opake,” hides the male within him “as in a Tabernacle Abominable 
Deadly” (Four Zoas 101, 11:33-37). Tabernacles and arks, like crystal 
cabinets, are evil because Blake opposes everything hidden or set aside 
in special holiness. Satan is a mutation of the Great Mother. He is 
“unformd & vast,” like the chaos of archaic night before the birth of the 
eye. Blake’s hermaphrodites are negative for the same reason they are 
positive for the French and English Decadence: their imperious self¬ 
containment. The hermaphrodite’s inability to mate and its incapacity 
for emotional opening are moral defects for Blake, who says, “The most 
sublime act is to set another before you” {Marriage of Heaven and Hell). 
The hermaphrodite is severe sexual closure. Satan is a black hole of 
super-dense matter, a spiralling convolution of psyche. He is spiritually 

Blake’s war at Jerusalem’s Gate is a vast “aggregate” hermaphrodite 
or “Polypus,” heaving like an earthquake {Four Zoas 104, II: 19—21, 
56:14—16). This Wagnerian passage is a great epiphany of the Diony¬ 
sian androgyne. Chthonian spasms give birth to the “monstrous” defor¬ 
mity, Satan. Swirling, swarming mobs are a single writhing being. 
Baudelaire uses a similar effect in “A Carcass,” where seething maggots 
rise and fall like a wave. Blake’s surreal warpings of perspective resem¬ 
ble Vergil’s in his grotesque Rumor, tyrant of city life. Hermaphrodite 
war and hermaphroditic Satan, spawned by daemonic parthenogenesis, 
belong to the category of androgyne I call the moral monstrosity. 

A reverse image of Satan’s birth occurs in Milton, where the poet- 
hero returns from Eden to become his own hermaphrodite Shadow. 
There are labor pains of ingress, as dead Milton forces the ribbon of 
time to run backwards so he may revise his life work. Milton, as if in 
masquerade, assumes hermaphrodite costume to recover his Emana¬ 
tion, Ololon. He is like Odysseus disguised as a beggar to free his 
Emanation, Penelope, from captivity in their house usurped by Spec¬ 
tres. Milton faces the Blakean sexual crux, a choice between a blissful 
bride and a male double (Satan). Milton’s quest for his Emanation 
* requires separating her from her own tendency toward hermaphrodi¬ 
tism. She is at a sexual crossroads, like the Greek fork where Oedipus 
slew Laius. Milton must capture his Emanation before she takes the 
road to Delphi, where she will become, like Alice, an omnipotent 
queen. Hermaphrodite Milton is tempted by orgiastic apparitions sent 
by the malevolent nature goddesses, Rahab and Tirzah. These her- 



maphrodites, “Double-sexed; / The Female-male & the Male-female,” 
have an Apollonian beauty glowing against chthonian darkness, like 
Lucifer in The Monk (19:32-33). They flash with the neon luridness of 
urban prostitution, homosexual and heterosexual. Milton is being con¬ 
fronted with his ambivalence about sex. 

In Jerusalem, in one of the most daring assaults upon the masculine in 
all of Blake, Vala denounces Los: “The Human is but a Worm, & thou O 
Male: Thou art / Thyself Female, a Male: a breeder of Seed: a Son & 
Husband: & Lo. / The Human Divine is Womans Shadow, a Vapor in 
the summers heat. . . . O Woman-born / And Woman-nourishd & 
Woman-educated & Woman-scorn’d!” (64:12—17). A giant hermaph¬ 
rodite suddenly forms, and the colors of crimson wrath, green jealousy, 
and purple frustration vibrate in the heavy air. The united beings loom 
over the Thames like a colossus, a toxic mushroom cloud. Vala as nature 
denies the male exists as a separate sex. He is merely a subset to woman. 
Nature shrinks man to her adolescent son-lover. Vala’s torrent of abuse 
resembles the hectoring verbal attacks of female upon cowering male in 
Lawrence’s Women in Love and the films All About Eve and Who's 
Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I invent a special category of the androgyne, 
the Venus Barbata, for such strident termagants. 

One of Los’s tasks in Jerusalem is to break apart false hermaphrodite 
forms to release their male and female energy. He pounds them on his 
anvil, asserting the aggression of masculine will. Los has to halt the 
careening orgy of the Daughters of Albion, who “divide & unite at will” 
as, “naked & drunk,” they pour through the London streets (58:1-2). 
The Daughters of Albion seem to clone themselves and make love to 
their own mirror images. Lesbianism is also implied in the physical 
intimacy of Jerusalem and Vala, surely illustrated in the introductory 
plate to the second chapter, which speaks of “unnatural consanguinities 
and friendships” (19:40—41, 28:7). Los’s hammer blows are the harsh 
metrical accents of poetry, imagination escaping and defeating nature’s 
organic rhythms. His beats are the renewed strife of contraries, the 
source of Blakean energy stunted by premature hermaphrodite fusings. 
Malevolent nature tries to reduce all objects to sameness, the infancy of 

Commentary on Blake’s hermaphrodites is scanty and confusing. 
The received interpretations are theories, not proven solutions. In his 
Blake Dictionary, , J. Foster Damon, following Milton O. Percival, makes 
a distinction between hermaphrodite and androgyne that makes no 
sense whatever to me. Damon and Percival believe the sexes are equal 
in the androgyne but that the female dominates in the hermaphrodite. / 

Sex Bound and Unbound 


But the latter idea comes from Ovid’s embroidered tale of Salmacis and 
Hermaphroditus, extremely late in mythological tradition. The words 
hermaphrodite and androgyne should be virtually synonymous. The 
only distinction might be to see the hermaphrodite as genitally dual but 
the androgyne as sexually ambiguous in face, hair, frame, clothes, 
manner, or spirit. But even this is an unnecessary split. 

Why are androgynes horrific in Blake’s poetry? Of the English Ro¬ 
mantics, Blake is the most oriented toward the patriarchal Old Testa¬ 
ment, which purges femaleness out of God. Like Dante and Spenser, 
Blake sees metamorphic hermaphroditism as evil. His loathsome her¬ 
maphrodites may be a tweaking of Milton’s and Swedenborg’s noses. In 
Milton’s heaven, angels change gender and have sex in perfect purity, 
their soft bodies “dilated or condens’t” at will ( P.L . 1 .423—31, VIII.615— 
29). But Blake denies there can be happiness in a realm that devalues 
the sexual body as grossly material. Blake’s hermaphrodites make Mil¬ 
tonic couplings, clotting and splitting at staccato pace. Their solipsism 
may be a satire on Milton’s angels, whom Blake views as passive, sterile 
jellies. In Milton’s heaven, like unites with like, for Blake a dead end of 

What Blake most abhors in Milton’s angelic intercourse is its dissolu¬ 
tion of outline, as the boneless entities meet and merge. This I see as the 
main reason for his hostility to hermaphrodites. Blake is the only major 
poet who is also an artist. The central reference point of his poetry and 
drawings is “the Human Form Divine,” specifically the male form, with 
which Blake identifies human imagination struggling to free itself from 
female nature. Like Michelangelo, Blake gives female figures a mas¬ 
culine musculature. Because Blake knew Michelangelo’s work only 
from engravings, his Michelangelo-inspired modelling has a sinewy 
hardness, like Signorelli’s. Blake blames Venetian and Flemish paint¬ 
ing for “losing the outlines.” There must be “firm and determinate 
outline”: “The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That 
the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect 
the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence 
of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling. . . . How do we distinguish 
the oak from the beech, the horse from the ox, but by the bounding 
outline? How do we distinguish one face or countenance from another, 
but by the bounding line and its infinite inflexions and movements?” 8 

Blake’s “hard and wirey line of rectitude” is the sharp Apollonian 
contour I have traced to the incised edges of Egyptian art. It is Blake’s 
barrier against nature, a perceptual device by which objects and persons 
gain their identity. Spenser too identifies virtue with sharp-edged per- 


* 9 ) 

sonality, and sloth and vice with melting dissolution of form. Blake 
condemns “blotting and blurring” in art, “broken lines, broken masses, 
and broken colours.” He calls chiaroscuro, originating in Leonardo’s 
ambiguous sfumato , “that infernal machine,” cranking out the murk of 
hell. 9 

The androgyne seemed benign to Blake the less clearly he thought 
about it: hence his obscure “rambling” to Robinson. As soon as Blake 
actually visualized the androgyne, it became a horror. Explicitly her¬ 
maphroditic figures are repugnant to him for the same reason they were 
to high classic Greek artists, who avoided depicting mutilations or 
monstrosities. For Blake the hermaphrodite offends against the vir¬ 
tuous optical integrity of the human form. The same zeal moved 
Spenser to cancel his “Hermaphrodite stanzas.” Blake abandoned the 
few drawings he attempted of the hermaphrodite, and he has his own 
rejected hermaphrodite stanzas, two fragments about Tharmas and his 
Emanation which were never included in The Four Zoos. Thus Blake’s 
hostility to the hermaphrodite has two sources, ethical and aesthetic. 
Male and female as principles of energy must not lose their autonomy 
in torpid self-absorption. Second, the visionary clarity of the unitary 
human form must not be defiled by grotesque hybridization. 

Blake’s art theory extends to his view of personality. We can dis¬ 
tinguish one face from another. Blake says, only by the bounding bor¬ 
derline, without which “all is chaos again.” There is an undertow in 
nature, sucking phenomena back to primeval nondifferentiation. Per¬ 
sonality maintains its discreteness by an act of will. Otherwise one 
person will flow helplessly into another. Both Spenser and Blake hate 
the amorphous. But Blake’s anxiety is obsession. His insistence on the 
bounding line is like Dr. Johnson’s compulsion to touch fence posts as 
he walked. Blake says, “Nature has no Outline” (“The Ghost of Abel”). 
Bloom speaks of Blake’s Rahab as “mother of the indefinite, queen of 
the abyss of objects without contour, lines without clear outline.” 10 
Looking at a smoky, coloristic painting, Blake feels he is looking into 
Rahab’s abyss. 

Blake says chiaroscuro makes a painting “all blocked up with brown 
shadows.” Though Rubens’ “original conception was all fire and ani¬ 
mation, he loads it with hellish brownness, and blocks up all its gates 
of light.” Blake uses “clear colours unmudded by oil. Mud, hellish 
brownness: excrement. Blake confirms this association elsewhere when 
he calls Rubens’ coloring “most Contemptible : “His Shadows are of a 
Filthy Brown somewhat of the Colour of Excrement. 11 Hellish brown¬ 
ness is the belly and bowels of mother nature, the labyrinth where the 


Sex Bound and Unbound 

Apollonian eye is lost. Blake’s mud is primal ooze, the chthonian swamp 
of generation. In Spenser and Blake, the self must be constructed and 
sustained against demoralizing relaxations (laxness of line). Personality 
is architectonic. Without virile force, the self slips back into the dissolu¬ 
tion of swampy female nature. 

Blake says a weak bounding line is evidence of plagiarism. Bloom’s 
anxiety of influence: by firmness of line, one defends oneself against an 
overwhelming precursor. Who is the ultimate precursor? The Great 
Original, mother nature, who delegates her authority to our individual 
mothers. Blake’s bounding line expresses a gnawing need for self¬ 
origination. It is a territorial strategy, by which the male separates 
himself from his female source. Like Jesus, Blake defies his mother: 
“Then what have I to do with thee?” (“To Tirzah”). When Blake says 
faces are indistinguishable without the bounding line, the two faces 
threatening to collapse into each other, as in the dream climax of 
Bergman’s Persona, are those of mother and son. 

Blake’s scorn for chiaroscuro is related to his resentment of the 
hidden and secret. He boldly calls for an end to shame about the 
genitals; he wants them flooded in the light of Glad Day ; with its 
exuberant nudity. Alas, sexual openness applies only to men. A man can 
walk vigorously free on the earth, exposing his genitals without self- 
consciousness or guilt. But a woman’s genitals are not visible when she 
stands or walks. To expose herself, she must lie on her back or squat 
over the observer’s face! In other words, she must take a position of 
submission or dominance, as in a primitive statuette or cult act. Man is 
either gynecologist or supine asphyxiate. The female body can never be 
made completely visible; it will always be a dark, secret place. I applied 
Karen Homey’s remark on woman’s inability to see her genitals to my 
theory of the Greek male nude, which I interpret as a projected genital. 
Embodying every emotion in titanic human form, Blake’s long poems 
are a psychic gigantism, a compulsive extemalization inspired by the 
desire to abolish the secrecy of woman’s reproductive matrix. Gigan¬ 
tism is distinctively masculine, as in Michelangelo and Goethe. Gigan¬ 
tism in a woman is transsexualizing, transmuting the female self by 
male potency. The desire to turn male is latent in two examples of 
female gigantism, Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff and Rosa Bonheur’s vast, 
muscular painting, Horse Fair. 

Blake’s supreme desire is to free sex from the tyrannical nature 
mother. One of my central theses is that sex and parturition occur in the 
liquid realm. Art is a flight from liquidity in its manufacture of discrete 
objects defying their origins. Blake’s extraordinary rhetorical energy 



and enormity of assertion come from his revulsion from the female- 
ruled liquid condition of physical life. The Greek beautiful boy, I said, is 
imagination freed from nature, but his freedom is attained through 
sexual renunciation, chastity. Blake desires free imagination, but he 
exalts eroticism and makes chastity a perversion. This is impossible. 
There can be no active sexuality without surrender to nature and to 
liquidity, the realm of the mother. Blake wants nature bound but sex 
unbound. Sex is chthonian, but as artist and man Blake seeks the 
Apollonian. Before the symbolism of his prophetic books was analyzed, 
Blake used to be called “mad.” This was obviously wrong. Yet in the 
long poems there is a hysteria or excess unacknowledged by criticism. 
Art is bom of stress, not repose. Art is always a swerve from primary 
experience. Blake’s long poems are full of knots, breaches, and strains. 
They are held together by force of will, like an ancient monument (the 
Porch of the Maidens) sutured by iron rods. Blake’s lack of complete 
intelligibility comes from his philosophical discontinuities. His hope¬ 
less but heroic task, to redeem sex from nature, is a western epic saga. 

Translating him into moral terms, criticism is at odds with how 
Blake’s poetry feels. Bloom presents Blake as a man of peace who hates 
war. But Blake’s prophetic poetry is war, violent, terrible. His long 
poems seethe with hostility, of which his obsession with mother nature 
is but one example. As I read the accumulated criticism, I keep asking, 
why is Blake a poet rather than a philosopher, if everything he wrote 
reduces so neatly to these manifest ideas? Blake scholarship denies 
there is a latent content. In life as in art, moral flag-waving may conceal 
a repressed attraction to what is being denounced. 

Blake’s treatment of women is full of ambivalences. Here is his model 
of the future: “In Eternity Woman is the Emanation of Man she has No 
Will of her own There is no such thing in Eternity as a Female Will” {A 
Vision of the Last Judgment). It is not enough to say all Blake’s females 
are nature and all his males are man and woman together. Whenever 
gender is symbolized, we must ask why. As long as imagination is 
formed by culture, it may be impossible to free the sexes from their 
inherited meanings in art. I am not particularly vexed by Blake’s nega¬ 
tive female symbols, since I am too aware of a contradictory latent 
content breaking through. So stunning a vision of nature as The Mental 
Traveller is not produced by someone secure in the triumph of male 
imagination. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf satirically de¬ 
scribes her perplexity at the bulging card catalog of the British Mu¬ 
seum: why, she asks, are there so many books written by men about 
women but none by women about men? The answer to her question is 

Sex Bound and Unbound 


that from the beginning of time men have been struggling with the 
threat of woman’s dominance. The flood of books was prompted not by 
woman’s weakness but by her strength, her complexity and impenetra¬ 
bility, her dreadful omnipresence. No man has yet been born, even 
Jesus himself, who was not spun from a pitiful speck of plasma to a 
conscious being on the secret loom within a woman’s body. That body is 
the cradle and soft pillow of woman’s love, but it is also the torture rack 
of nature. 

Blake seems to be the one Romantic who denies the femme fatale’s 
power over him. But this is his propaganda, not reality. Even Los’s 
activity is the hammering heart of sex fear. In one of the most spectacu¬ 
lar passages in Blake’s poetry, the naked Daughters of Albion perform a 
grim ritual of nature cult. They hunker on a stone altar, the rock 
landscape of The Mental Traveller. With a flint knife, castration tool of 
the Great Mother, they gash the howling male victim. His blood stains 
their white bodies. They thrust their fingers in his heart; they pour cold 
water on his brain and lid his eyes. “Glowing with beauty & cruelty: / 
They obscure the sun & the moon; no eye can look upon them.” One 
drinks the blood of her “panting Victim.” He pants because he is a deer 
caught by an eerily unwinded Diana. The sex act has drained him. 
Woman soaks up male energy for her insatiable pleasure and pride (Jer 
66:16-34, 68:11-12). 

The Daughters of AJbion are so superbly glamourous and the whole 
terrifying scene so astoundingly visualized that we must ask whether 
such things in Blake really come from militant resistance to the femme 
fatale. I fail to see significant differences between this passage and the 
erotic vampire poems of Baudelaire. Surely there is secret delectation in 
Blake’s vivid detailing of each step of the prostrate male’s torture. This is 
a great flight of sadomasochistic poetry. I feel very strongly in it Blake’s 
shiver of voluptuous identification with the humiliated victim. It pre¬ 
figures Whitman’s keening sexual litanies. The manifest content of the 
passage is that nature is pitiless and tyrannical. The latent content is 
that Blake’s excess of opposition to the “Female Will” springs from his 
attraction to her and from the danger of his imminent surrender. 

Blake’s sexual vulnerability is only to chthonian androgynes, the 
Great Mother and her subset, the vampire. The Amazon figure severed 
from sexuality offers no archetypal danger to him; hence his stern 
rejection of her is uncomplicated. Blake’s virginity is a haughty, solitary 
Artemis, like Spenser’s Belphoebe. Apollonian Elynittria, “the silver 
bowed queen,” has a “terrible” light and “immortal beauty,” driving off 
trespassers with her silver arrows (Eur 8:4; Mil 12:1, 11:37—38). Blake 



finds immature the self-sequestration of Spenserian virginity. Signifi¬ 
cantly, his crowded painting of The Faerie Queene omits both Bel- 
phoebe and Britomart. Blake has a nightmare vision of Amazon legions 
on the move, modelled on Milton’s demon army. Thousands of women 
march over “burning wastes of Sand,” as blazing lightning strikes their 
armoured shoulders {Four Zoos 70:21-23). Virginity, burning with re¬ 
pressed desire, is a hot thin soil where nothing grows. Blake’s war 
against female hegemony extends even to his Muse. He claimed he took 
dictation from the spirit of his dead brother, who died at nineteen. Thus 
Blake has a male Muse, an extraordinary aberration in the history of 
poetry. Milton bizarrely descends into Blake’s foot in his garden—po¬ 
etic destiny transmitted from one male to another, without the Muse’s 
mediation. Blake will not let femaleness touch him on any side. 

Blake, unlike Wordsworth, is chock-full of characters, 
who are the very stuff of his poetry. But he is not concerned with 
personality as such. His characters are generalized and typological. 
Blake is interested in universal, not idiosyncratic experience. In the 
huge corpus of his art work, there are few portraits, and these are 
usually caricatures or grotesques. Blake resembles Michelangelo in his 
indifference to the portrait mode, a medium of social personae. Man¬ 
ners are rituals, which Blake opposes in society or religion as mechan¬ 
ical formulas imposed on the spontaneous and organic. Ironically, in 
dispensing with social ritualism, Blake left himself open to the far more 
brutal sadomasochistic ritualism of sex and nature, which became his 
favorite poetic style. Like D. H. Lawrence, Blake wants sex to transcend 
social names and identities. Also like Lawrence, he desires a return to 
naturalness without succumbing to nature. In Blake’s world, the mere 
appearance of a persona is a sign of disease. A mask is a moral husk. 

Blake attacks all hierarchies. There is no great chain of being in his 
poetry; nothing is holier than anything else. But Blake’s bounding line 
is an Apollonian and hence hierarchical principle. I noted that Blake is 
against dissolution of form, the Dionysian force destroying hierarchy in 
Euripides’ Medea and Bacchae. Despite his bounding line, Blake op¬ 
poses centripetal identity as solipsistic. Urizen, for example, is “self- 
closd, all-repelling” {Urizen 3:3). Here the bounds of self are too firm. 
Blake’s most famous drawing is the centrifugal Glad Day .; athletic 
Albion with arms flung wide, a symbol of the free energy Blake loves. 
Free energy is Dionysian. One cannot be simultaneously for contour 
and for sexuality, since sexuality by its veiy nature is an abridgement of 
contour. Two people making love are the beast with two backs. The 


Sex Bound and Unbound 

most perfectly contoured personalities in literature and art are those 
Apollonian angels of chastity whom Blake despises for their coldness 
and exclusivity. 

These irreconcilable contradictions arise from Blake’s violent yoking 
together of two opposing systems, the Bible and the visual arts. As a 
graphic artist, Blake is already beyond Old Testament Judaism, which 
condemns image-making as idolatry. The Ten Commandments forbid 
pictures of all kinds—of animals, fish, or gods. This is a Hebrew strat¬ 
egy against pagan fertility cults, which saw divinity in nature. Yahweh’s 
injunction diverted Jewish creative energy away from the visual arts 
into theology, philosophy, literature, law, and science, by which the Jews 
have made a stunning impact on world culture, far outweighing their 
small numbers. Blake’s eccentric psychology comes from the fact that 
he is a strange combination of artist and Hebrew prophet. 

Blake rejects Greco-Roman literature and exalts the Bible, whose 
psychology he adopts. There are no sexual personae in the Bible, except 
among harlots. Biblical character is unitary and homogeneous. Psychic 
splits are of the “whited sepulcher” kind, where the self is cleanly 
divided into visible and invisible halves. Multiplicity is just the moral 
duality of a fair face concealing a foul heart. The self breaks down no 
finer than this. Metamorphosis is reserved for seraphs; God and de¬ 
mons make marvels, turning into a pillar of fire or bouncing into a pig. 
There is no suggestion of the turbulent welter of impulses in Euripides’ 
Medea. The Bible is unconcerned with mystery of motivation. Phar¬ 
aoh’s hardness of heart is stupidity and self-destructiveness, the donkey 
halting in its track. Saul’s envy is an exception—but perhaps a chunk of 
the story has varnished along the way. 

Classical personality, in contrast, is a theatrical projection of self. A 
tremendous amount of imaginative energy was invested in the con¬ 
struction of persona. It is in the persona that honor resides, and offenses 
against honor require revenge, a principle still colorfully operative 
among the Mafia. Classical psychology, revived in the Renaissance, 
lingers on in Italian culture, where persona is called figura (as in “cut¬ 
ting a figure”). In the Bible, individuals are inseparable from their acts. 
Matthew Arnold says, “The uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct 
and obedience.” 12 That Biblical personality exists in and for moral 
action makes sense inasmuch as the Bible is a chronicle, the record of a 
chosen people moving through history. While action is important in 
classical culture, the persona is separate from and greater than acts. No 
value inheres in an action unless one is seen performing it. The Greek 
gods certainly don’t give a fig, unless their personal vanity is involved. 



Hence the act is merely instrumental, common clay in the sculpting of 
persona, which is a public work of art. Blake seeks out the Hebrew roots 
of character and tries to throw off the classical theatrical persona. But 
the Hebrew view of personality as moral content creates a tension in his 
poetry with the Greek view of personality as visible formal contour, to 
which Blake is drawn despite himself, because of his artist’s eye. In his 
indictment of the Great Mother, Blake writes like St. Augustine, as if 
she were an immediate threat. Thus his poetry recreates the historical 
situation in which the Jews warred with Egypt, Babylon, and Rome. 

Despite his apparent radicalism, Blake is deeply conservative about 
personality. He is obsessed with the subject, because he stands on the 
threshold of one of the great leaps in western culture in number and 
volatility of sexual personae. The last had been at the Renaissance. 
With the intuition of genius, Blake feels the forces at work in the late 
eighteenth century which will produce the chaotic proliferation of mod¬ 
em personalities. Like Spenser, Blake tries to halt the breakdown into 
multiplicity of personae. With the Apollonian bounding line, he wants 
to bind up the self into honesty, to ban all psychic fictions. But as Blake 
pursues his moral quest, the principal tools which come to hand are 
feverishly propagating Spectres and Emanations. Their thronging pres¬ 
ence in his riven poetry makes it symptomatic in literary history of the 
very fragmentation it condemns. 


Marriage to Mother Nature 


William Wordsworth, not William Blake, defined nature 
for nineteenth-century culture. Visiting France in the early 1790s, 
Wordsworth read and admired Rousseau. Disillusioned by the French 
Revolution’s moral degeneration, he turned away from politics toward 
nature, the focus of his hopes. Nature’s inability to sustain him emo¬ 
tionally becomes one of Wordsworth’s sad themes. From first to last, he 
sees nature with Rousseau’s eyes. Wordsworth’s refusal to acknowledge 
the sex or cruelty in nature is one source of the palpable repression in 
his poetry, which constricts and weighs it down. This repression, ap¬ 
proaching depressiveness, accounts for Wordsworth’s lack of appeal to 
young readers, who are drawn to energy, not to mention lust. Words¬ 
worth’s sexlessness is not neurotic failing but conceptual strategy. He 
must renounce sex in order not to see or feel nature’s sadism. Blake 
wants sex without nature. Wordsworth wants nature without sex. As 
Rousseau is answered by Sade, so is Wordsworth answered—by his 
friend and colleague, Coleridge. There is a harsh sexual symbiosis 
between the two men: Wordsworth displaces onto Coleridge what he 
himself cannot acknowledge in nature. From Coleridge comes the 
savage line of nineteenth-century pornographic daemonism, Poe and 
Hawthorne to Baudelaire, Wilde, and James. The bitter war between 
Wordsworth and Coleridge goes on for a hundred years. 

Wordsworth’s first principle is “wise passiveness,” a feminine recep¬ 
tivity opening us to nature. In “Expostulation and Reply,” from Words¬ 
worth and Coleridge’s revolutionary Lyrical Ballads (1798), a friend 
chides the poet for dreaming his time away. Wordsworth replies that the 
eye sees, the ear hears, and our bodies feel “against or with our will.” 
Unknown “Powers” play upon us. These powers are chthonian, but 



30 i 

Wordsworth severs them from their ancient connection to sex and 
barbarism. Reality is active, the poet contemplative, dominated by na¬ 
ture. The poem is a manifesto of sexual dissent, a withdrawal from the 
traditional masculine sphere of action and achievement. It starts a 
movement in modem literature leading to Melville’s self-entombed 
Bartleby (“I would prefer not to”) and Kafka’s crippled cockroach, 
Gregor Samsa. Wordsworth forfeits maleness for spiritual union with 
mother nature: wholeness through self-mutilation. His poetry revives 
the ritualism of the Asiatic mother-cults, whose priests castrated them¬ 
selves for the goddess. 

In a companion poem, Wordsworth denies we can learn anything 
from books, that is, from the words of other men. Instead, “Let Nature 
be your teacher.” Intellect “mis-shapes” beauty: “We murder to dis¬ 
sect.” All you need is a heart that “watches and receives” (“The Tables 
Turned”). As in Dante, reason cannot lead us to ultimate truth. Words¬ 
worth’s reason is brutal and uncreative. Murder by dissection means 
analysis is masculine, penetrating and killing. Intellect is too aggres¬ 
sive. The heart “receives” knowledge as a bride opens to her husband. 
The poet’s sex reversal is unmistakable: his shadowy Powers appear 
here as female nature. The male perfects himself by shamanistic sacri¬ 
fice of virility. When he is completely passive, nature showers him with 
gifts. He is holy newborn and she Madonna and Magi. There is nothing 
negative in the teacher. Thus there can be nothing negative in the 
lesson. This was Wordsworth’s major error. 

The Rousseauist family romance of mother and child is explicit 
throughout Wordsworth. In The Recluse he calls himself a “nursling of 
the mountains” tamed by female nature, who turns him from “Warrior’s 
Schemes” and tells him, “Be mild, and cleave to gentle things” (726- 
45). Enlightenment means androgyny. Nature is man’s model. Since 
she is female, he must become feminine. This internalization of femi¬ 
ninity is celebrated in the last book of The Prelude , where the heart of 
the spiritually evolved male is “tender as a nursing mother’s heart” and 
his life full of “female softness,” “humble cares and delicate desires, / 
Mild interests and gentlest sympathies” (XIV.225—31). A man reaches 
the height of moral understanding through psychic transsexualism. His 
inner life is colonized by feminine emotions and experiences. Intuitive 
vision is trancelike removal from the active body. Wordsworth calls it 
“that serene and blessed mood,” a yogic suspension of breath and 
blood: “We are laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul. The 
aggressive western eye is “made quiet” as “We see into the life of 
things” (Tintem Abbey). There is no gender in pure contemplativeness, 


Marriage to Mother Nature 

since there is no gender-defining body, now neutralized and tran¬ 

Wordsworth systematically suppresses the body, the medium of mas¬ 
culine action. When Peter Bell's hardhearted protagonist reforms, his 
joy turns to tears, melting “his nerves, his sinews”: “Through all his iron 
frame was felt / A gentle, a relaxing, power!” Fibers weakened, he is 
helpless, “mild and gentle as an infant child.” The iron frame of mas¬ 
culine architecture is dissolved by feminine emotion, restoring child¬ 
hood innocence. Like Goethe’s Werther, Wordsworth identifies mas¬ 
culinity with corrupt adulthood. He is amending and reversing The 
Faerie Queerte. Wordsworth welcomes melting relaxation for the same 
reason Spenser abhors it: because it is a feminizing deconstruction of 
the male will. Wordsworth’s ideal is a Bower of Bliss in overhanging 
nature. He seeks Dionysian deliquescence without sex. Wordsworth 
wants to prolong childhood emotional purity into genderless adulthood. 
Is this a Puritan bequest? Emotion without eroticism is impossible. 

The poet is a “gentle creature” with a female mind, happiest when 
sitting “brooding” like a “mother dove.” At Cambridge, Wordsworth 
was as “sensitive” to nature’s changes as waters to the sky. He was 
“obedient as a lute” waiting for “the touches of the wind” (Pre 1.135— 
41, III. 138—39). Wordsworth often calls river or sea a female “bosom” 
or “breast.” So if he is water, he is female, as in ancient cosmogonies 
which imagine female earth inseminated by male sky. Erotic passivity is 
implicit in Romanticism’s favorite topos of the Aeolian wind-harp, here 
a lute symbolizing the artist’s subordination to nature’s inspiring power. 

Wordsworth’s descriptions of mental processes are sexually tinged. 
The mind is “lord and master”; the senses are “obedient servant of her 
will” (Pre XII.222-23). Mind is a dominatrix. The poet’s inner life is 
womblike: “Caverns there were within my mind which sun / Could 
never penetrate” (HI.246—47). Wordsworth uses “pregnancy” and “im¬ 
pregnation” in nonsexual contexts. The cavern image appears in two of 
The Prelude's major passages. Crossing the Alps, Wordsworth thinks of 
imagination as an “awful Power” that “rose from the mind’s abyss / 
Like an unfathered vapour” (VI.594-95). Geoffrey Hartman says imag¬ 
ination is unfathered because “self-begotten.” 1 The mind in its abyss is 
a double-sexed earth mother, fertilizing herself without male help. 
Imagination is unfathered because it shuns the pricking stimulus of 
male reason; its sole parent is female intuition. The poet is like the 
Delphic oracle maddened by vapors. Wordsworth reverts to matriarchal 
consciousness, receiving signals from earth and heart, rather than sky 
and brain. Hartman finds “sexual or birth-channel implications” in 



Wordsworth’s images of “narrow chasm,” “gloomy strait,” and “dark 
deep thoroughfare.” 2 Ascending Mount Snowdon, Wordsworth sees a 
mind feeding upon infinity, brooding over “the dark abyss” (XIV. 70— 
72). The mind as mother dove broods upon its own inner cavern. 
Paradise Lost opens with God sitting “brooding on the vast Abyss” to 
make it “pregnant” (I.21—22). Wordsworth’s maternal poetic con¬ 
sciousness takes over God’s powers and privileges. 

Eye and ear, Wordsworth says in Tintem Abbey, not only “perceive” 
but “half create.” There should be “balance” and harmony between 
“the objects seen, and eye that sees.” Wordsworth wants to blunt the 
aggressive western eye without darkening it in solipsism. He scorns as 
“passive minds” those failing to see the “affinities” and “brotherhood” 
between men and natural things (Pre XIII.375—78, II.384—86). This 
negative use of “passive” is unexpected. Wordsworth assails “Presump¬ 
tion, folly, madness, in the men / Who thrust themselves upon the 
passive world / As Rulers of the world” (Pre XIII.66—68). As Hitler said, 
the masses are feminine. Wordsworth’s thrusting, self-erected rulers 
rape the people. “One maternal spirit” fills the world, except where man 
is unjustly made “a tool or implement, a passive thing” (The Excursion 
EX. 11 i~i6). Bad government is against nature. In Wordsworth’s play, 
The Borderers , “the tyranny of the world’s masters” lives only “in the 
torpid acquiescence of emasculated souls” (III.354—57). Dominance 
requires submission. Political power is sadomasochistic sex. In a sonnet 
of 1803, Wordsworth urges England to “wean” its heart from “its 
emasculating food.” England is on its knees, sucking from the wrong 
sex and the wrong spigot. 

Wordsworth’s negative, emasculated passivity occurs when men sub¬ 
ordinate themselves not to maternal female nature but to other men. 
Acceptance of political tyranny is a betrayal of divine mother love. 
Modem social man is a moral catamite, like Pope’s court-enamoured 
Sporus. Hence Wordsworth, like Blake, has his own sexual crux. A man 
may choose emasculation in the service of the state, stultifying his 
imagination, or he may choose marriage with a mother goddess. But 
who is the bride, who the groom? Wordsworth, son and spouse, is self- 
eunuchized. Male-defending Blake would denounce this marriage and 
be ejected from the church. 

Wordsworth exalts suffering, as well as perception. “Action is transi¬ 
tory,” merely “the motion of a muscle,” while “Suffering is permanent, 
obscure, and dark, / And shares the nature of infinity” (Bor III.405—10). 
Through suffering one enters Wordsworth’s dark abyss. Suffering is an 
Eleusinian mystery, a chthonian cavern. Action is masculine, suffering 

)o 4 

Marriage to Mother Nature 

feminine. Men’s acts are “transitory,” but the travails of women and 
woman-identified males are “permanent.” Wordsworth’s sexuality is in 
dreams of self-immolation. 

Reviewing the sexual personae of his collected works, we discover 
Wordsworth’s radical exclusion of one human type: the adult man of 
active virility. His poems are filled with children, women, old men, and 
animals. But a stone in the road arouses more fellow-feeling in Words¬ 
worth than does a masculine man. Exiles from society automatically 
win his Rousseauist respect. Since Wordsworth identifies society with 
masculinity, the masculine male, smug victor of the social sweepstakes, 
is barred from the poetry. For Blake the Man is everything; for Words¬ 
worth he is nothing, a moral zero. Though Wordsworth’s compassion 
seems ideologically all-inclusive, it is not. The more glaring art’s omis¬ 
sions, the bigger the imaginative swerve. Wordsworth bums with aver¬ 
sion toward virile males. 

For Wordsworth’s emotion to flow toward him, a male must suffer 
some curtailment of virility. We meet a sailor in “Incidents upon Salis¬ 
bury Plain,” but he is old and impoverished. His feet are half bare, his 
red military coat faded, patched, and tom. He is a murderer and thus, 
like Cain, doomed to solitary wandering. In The Prelude Wordsworth 
meets a tall man in military dress with “a lean and wasted arm”: “a 
more meagre man / Was never seen before by night or day” (IV.3876*.). 
Sailor and soldier have been expelled from social hierarchies. They are 
the detritus of a civilization moving obliviously through history. It is for 
their obsolescence and “desolation” that Wordsworth admires them. 
Another sailor appears in “The Waggoner,” which starts to follow his 
adventures in a surprisingly straightforward way. Can this be a Words¬ 
worthian virile male? No, a hundred lines later: “Up springs the Sailor 
from his chair— / Limps (for I might have told before / That he was 
lame) across the floor” (II. 102-04). Men must be mutilated to get into 
Wordsworth’s poetry. Wordsworth is so used to impairing his males 
physically or spiritually that he elides the sailor’s lameness at first 
entrance, leaving the affliction understood as a traumatic assumption of 
his poetic world. Or perhaps he conceives of the sailor as virile but then 
finds his imagination stiffened by the presence of so strange and sex¬ 
ually obtrusive a being. He must jump backward to cancel the disturb¬ 
ing implication of maleness. Only after the sailor is hastily lamed in an 
awkward parenthesis can the poem proceed. 

An attractive American youth appears in “Elegiac Stanzas” (1820)— 
but only because he has drowned in the lake at Zurich. In “Vaudracour 
and Julia,” a young man violently pursues his love, then retires to a 


3 °S 

forest to raise his illegitimate child. The children die because of a 
mysterious error by the father, who degenerates into imbecile mute¬ 
ness. Moral: virility slaloms downhill into squalor. In “Michael,” an 
eighteen-year-old youth cuts a handsome figure. But the implacable 
Wordsworth destines him for disaster in “dissolute” London: “igno¬ 
miny and shame” drive him overseas. The city is Babylon, tempting 
men to sexual and automatically fallen experience. In “Hart-Leap 
Well,” a knight builds a “pleasure-house” where he kills a stag and will 
play with his “Paramour.” The poem equates killing and sex: as in 
Faust , domination of nature is domination of woman. In the second 
part, the mansion has vanished, and the spot is “curst,” the trees “life¬ 
less stumps.” Phallicism is sterile, an affront to nature. 

In “The Two April Mornings” and its companion poem, “The Foun¬ 
tain,” a seventy-two-year-old schoolmaster recalls his adulthood as “a 
vigorous man.” Virility is documented only when lost. It is distanced at 
several narrative removes, memory within memory: the first poem ends 
with Wordsworth remembering the schoolmaster remembering. Virility 
is contemplated through the bleared lens of age. In “The Last of the 
Flock,” we meet “a healthy man, a man full grown.” But he is weeping 
in the road! Once rich, he has sold his fifty sheep to buy food for his 
children. Wordsworth turns the flock’s diminishing into a litany of 
dwindling manhood: fifty, ten, five, three, two, one, none. Wordsworth’s 
arithmetic charts the shrinking of patriarchal domain. As his property 
shrivels to the borders of his body, the protagonist, like Odysseus or 
Lear, will soon be nobody. His Wordsworthian decline is like Kleist’s 
male mastectomy in Penthesilea, a surgical reduction of self. Words¬ 
worth empathizes with the virile male of “The Last of the Flock” 
because he is suffering and because his masculine identity is fast ap¬ 
proaching the vanishing point. For Wordsworth, a man becomes greater 
as he becomes less. Self-sacrifice and public martyrdom canonize him 
in the cult of female nature. 

In “Character of the Happy Warrior,” Wordsworth asks, “Who is the 
happy Warrior? Who is he / That eveiy man in arms should wish to be?” 
This is virtually the last we hear about arms, since it turns out that the 
best warrior “makes his moral being his prime care.” The poem is a 
series of precepts more applicable to philosopher than soldier. In “The 
Happy Warrior” there is no glamour in action, only in quality of being. 
Late in his career, Wordsworth added a preface revealing the poem had 
been inspired by Lord Nelson: “But his public life was stained with one 
great crime, so that... I have not been able to connect his name with 
the poem as I could wish.” The crime was Nelson’s affair with Emma, 

Marriage to Mother Nature 


Lady Hamilton. The open but by no means promiscuous sexuality of 
England’s naval hero caused his name to be struck from the honor roll 
of Wordsworth’s poetry. What Byron would praise, Wordsworth con¬ 
demns. Wordsworth adds that the virtues of the happy warrior were 
found in his own brother, a ship’s commander, who died in a wreck at 
sea in 1805. This masculine brother appears by name in Wordsworth’s 
poetry—but naturally only in “Elegiac Verses” after his death. 

There is a striking epiphany of virility in The Prelude , a vision coming 
to the youthful Wordsworth near Stonehenge. He hears primitive tribes 
at war and sees “A single Briton clothed in wolf-skin vest, / With shield 
and stone-axe,” a figure of “barbaric majesty (XIII.312—26). For the 
first and only time, Wordsworth’s imagination is kindled by a masculine 
male. But again virility enters the poetry only as a memory thrust 
backward in time. The older Wordsworth remembers the young Words¬ 
worth having a racial memory. The fierce Briton belongs to prehistory. 
He is man-in-nature, outside and prior to contemporary society, the 
focus of Wordsworth’s hostility. Another example from The Prelude 
completes our sex survey. In the sunny fresh air, Wordsworth sees a 
brawny laborer caressing a “sickly babe” on his knee (VII.602-18). 
Like Praxiteles’ Hermes with infant Dionysus, Wordsworth’s laborer is 
kourotrophos y the child-rearer. He is a male mother, the category of 
androgyne I call Teiresias. Unconsciously, the laborer has modelled 
himself upon nature’s maternal spirit. The babe softens his gender and 
makes it tolerable for the poet. 

Thus Wordsworth’s emotion is never invested in figures of active 
virility, unless that virility is qualified by suffering or feminine feeling or 
unless it is seen through the distancing perspective of memory. Since 
femaleness suffuses the created world, the pure male is cast out. He has 
no right to life. In order to matriculate in Wordsworth’s green campus, 
one must undergo a punishing series of entrance exams. Under a 
special admissions program, women, children, and old men have priv¬ 
ileged status, as disadvantaged minorities in patriarchal society. Males 
hoping for acceptance must undergo a perilous rite de passage. They 
must suffer deeply, even die, or they must become mothers. Each option 
is sexually transformative. Etymologically, to matriculate means to en¬ 
ter the realm of womb and mother. Wordsworth is the iron chancellor of 
spiritual matriculation, soaking his beings with tenderizing mother- 

What of Wordsworth’s other sexual personae? I conclude that the 
more emotionally remote a person is to Wordsworth, the more pictori- 
ally detailed. The more emotionally central, the vaguer and more numi- 



nous. The poet calls his future wife, Maiy Hutchinson, “a Phantom of 
delight,” “a lovely Apparition.” She is “a dancing Shape, an Image gay,” 
“a Spirit, yet a Woman too,” bright with “angelic light.” The poem 
begins and ends with Mary as an angel of dissolving gender. In The Pre¬ 
lude Wordsworth again calls Mary “phantom” and “spirit” (XIV.268- 
70). The mysterious Lucy dies into formal indeterminacy, “Rolled 
round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees” (“A 
Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”). Beyond personality, Lucy is submerged 
in nature’s Dionysian metamorphoses—possibly a detail from the cli¬ 
max of Lewis’ The Monk. The angelic Mary moves upward in the chain 
of being, while Lucy moves downward. But both suffer the same Words¬ 
worthian fate: their bodies are dematerialized and desexed. Reduced to 
matter, Lucy loses her gender and human identity. 

Wordsworth uses the same indeterminacy of form for his sister, Dor¬ 
othy, by far the most important person in his life, as he was in hers. 
After his break with Wordsworth, Coleridge tartly called her (in Greek) 
“the sister-brother-worshipper” or “-slave.” In Wordsworth’s poetry, 
Dorothy is bodiless and sexless. No matter how many times one reads 
Tintem Abbey,\ Dorothy’s appearance at the end is always startling. 
Self-absorbed Wordsworth seems so utterly alone in his reflections and 
memories. Dorothy suddenly materializes, like a spirit. At first, her 
gender is unclear: “thou my dearest Friend, / My dear, dear Friend”— 
the same abstract honorific Wordsworth uses for Coleridge throughout 
The Prelude. Only after eight long lines do we get any information 
about the friend’s sex or identity. Yet Wordsworth is listening to the 
friend’s voice and looking into “the shooting lights” of the friend’s eyes. 
For eight lines we are left helplessly free-floating, in sexual suspension. 
We are asked to hear a voice and look into the eyes of a being of unfixed 

Dorothy is bodiless and sexless in Tintem Abbey because she is 
Wordsworth’s Jungian anima , an internal aspect of self momentarily 
projected. Hence her suddenness of appearance, since for most of the 
poem’s interior monologue, she has not really been external to her 
brother. When Wordsworth hears in Dorothy’s voice “the language of 
my former heart” and sees his “former pleasures” in her eyes, he seems 
to be contemplating his twin or double. Bloom calls Dorothy “an incar¬ 
nation of his earlier self.” 3 Gazing into Dorothy’s face, Wordsworth is 
looking into a magic mirror and seeing his past self. He is like Spenser’s 
Britomart glimpsing in the crystal ball or mirror her future self in 
sexually transmuted form. Coleridge speaks of a looking-glass as a 
“Sister Mirror.” Seeing himself in Dorothy’s eyes, Wordsworth is like 

Marriage to Mother Nature 


Donne’s lover seeing her reflection mirrored in the poet’s tears. Words¬ 
worth’s eight sexually suspended lines are a moment of psychic parturi¬ 
tion in which the sister-spirit emerges from her brother’s male double. 
The passage records her systematic coalescence of gender and identity, 
as she pulls away from coextensiveness with her brother, like the moon 
tearing itself from primeval earth. 

Dorothy hovers at Wordworth’s side like a tutelary spirit maintaining 
discreet silence until summoned. She is ritualistically invoked because 
Wordsworth needs her to quell a sudden anxiety. He has just completed 
a history of his relation with nature since childhood. Now he reaffirms 
he is still “A lover of the meadows and the woods, / And mountains.” 
But something has changed. Addressing Dorothy, Wordsworth adds 
parenthetically, “Knowing that Nature never did betray / The heart that 
loved her.” This knowing is hope under duress. Dorothy’s materializa¬ 
tion is Wordsworth’s strategy to keep despair at bay. She is a visible 
symbol of relatedness, stilling Wordsworth’s fear at the death of his 
tranquil relation with nature. Proteus changed shape to elude pursuers, 
until he was finally wrestled to the ground. Proteus’ transformations are 
the flux of Wordsworth’s emotion, agitating him until he forces it into 
one human shape, his sister. The poet mentally grasps his externalized 
sister to prevent his vision of union with nature from slipping away. 
“Knowing that Nature never did betray”: material of overwhelming 
emotional importance is consigned to a participial phrase. Virginia 
Woolf does the same thing in To the Lighthouse , where Mrs. Ramsay’s 
death is casually announced in a participial phrase. Mrs. Ramsay is 
Woolf’s charismatic mother, whose premature death caused the novel¬ 
ist’s first mental breakdown and was the determining catastrophe of her 
life. These participles are a ritual formalization and distancing of intol¬ 
erable emotion. Wordsworth’s mother died when he was eight. He says 
of her in The Prelude , “She left us destitute” (V.259). Mothers do betray. 
Nature is Wordsworth’s second abandoning mother. 

So the sister-spirit abruptly appears in Tintem Abbey because Words¬ 
worth is troubled by a new destitution, the departure of loving maternal 
nature. Perhaps the anima is always externalized at moments of spir¬ 
itual crisis. Addressing the nation the morning he left the White House 
after his resignation, Richard Nixon was overcome by reminiscences of 
his mother. Tears in his eyes, he said, “She was a saint.” Media derision 
of this as Nixonian calculation surprised me: Italians do not find it 
ridiculous to speak of one’s mother at peak dramatic moments. Italian 
soldiers lying wounded on the battlefield in the two world wars called 
upon not wives or sweethearts but “Mamma, Mamma.” At his moment 



of cataclysmic loss, a dissolution of the politically supreme male per¬ 
sona, Nixon underwent a voyage of Proustian memory from a sordid, 
self-befouled present into a mythical lost paradise of childhood. In the 
process, he summoned his mother, who was, I submit, powerfully 
evoked. She really did hover at his side as his projected anima , visible to 
the eye of imagination. Athletes whooping it up on the sidelines after a 
personal triumph look into the camera and say, “Hi, Mom!” It’s rarely 
“Hi, Dad,” because the father figure can never serve, as do mothers, 
sisters, and beautiful youths, as emblem of passage from one imagina¬ 
tive realm to the next. Father and brother are society; mother and sister 
are emotion. 

In The Prelude Dorothy is the Muse confirming Wordsworth in his 
poetic vocation. She is a marriage broker or Psychopompos guiding him 
through the Orphic underworld of emotion toward his “true self.” Her 
“sweet influence” drew him away from the severity and “terror” of Mil¬ 
ton’s masculine style: “Thou didst soften down / This over-sternness.” 
Her femininity flowed into and tempered him (XI.333—48, XIV. 237- 
50). Wordsworth’s spiritual identity with his sister was so intense we 
must classify it as Romantic incest. Some suggest the two were sexually 
involved, which I think unlikely. The one Romantic who may actually 
have committed incest was Byron, and that did not last long. Words¬ 
worth and his sister transformed incest into a spiritual principle. Here 
and in Shelley’s Epipsychidion, Romantic incest is a metaphor for su¬ 
persaturation of identity. It is an archaic device to propel history back¬ 
wards, enabling the poet to return to primal sources of inspiration. 

In his culminating reference to Dorothy in The Prelude , Wordsworth 
says the highest condition of the man of imagination is “singleness” 
(XIV.211). A spouse is superfluous, since the superior man contains 
both sexes married within his own psyche. G. Wilson Knight calls this 
Wordsworth’s “higher integration”: it is a “wholeness beyond normal¬ 
ity,” “an androgynous state.” 4 Bloom says of all artists, “The poet-in- 
a-poet cannot marry ; whatever the person-in-a-poet chooses to have 
done.” 5 In The Prelude there is a direct chain of connection, over 
seventeen lines, from Wordsworth’s “singleness” to the heart “tender as 
a nursing mother’s.” Wordsworth internalizes the feminine world and 
makes it his bride-state. Now he thinks of the angelic messenger who 
impregnated him with her female power, Dorothy, “Sister of my soul!” 
(232). The sister is the feminine half of the soul allowing the poet to 
remain superbly alone, a magus contemplating reality but not subordi¬ 
nated to it. 

Wordsworth’s poetry represents the three women closest to him as 


Marriage to Mother Nature 

physically porous. In other words, Wordsworth’s high affect blurs fe¬ 
male contour. The women characters of Wordsworth’s anecdotal story- 
poems are far more definitive as physical presences. The less a woman 
is loved by Wordsworth, the more clearly she is seen. Oddly for a poet of 
nature, Wordsworth’s ardor dematerializes or seraphicizes the beloved. 
She ceases to be an object, much less a sex object. Does Wordsworth 
fear his own aggressive eye? Compare this generalizing style to Words¬ 
worth’s pictorial technique for his most characteristic figure, the aged 
male solitary. The old Cumberland beggar, for example, eats scraps of 
food out of “a bag all white with flour.” Showers of crumbs fall from “his 
palsied hand.” His body is “bow-bent.” As he “creeps” along, the wind 
beats “his grey locks against his withered face.” The leech-gatherer of 
“Resolution and Independence” is a “decrepit Man,” with a body “bent 
double.” He seems the oldest man “that ever wore grey hairs.” He props 
himself, “limbs, body, and pale face,” on “a long grey staff of shaven 
wood.” These detailed figures are vastly more individuated than Doro¬ 
thy, Lucy, or Mary. They have the lugubrious specificity of muckraking 

Wordsworth’s male solitaries are found objects, art works made by 
buffeting nature. Survivors of some wreck of civilization, they are 
weathered like driftwood. Their Giacometti-like thinness is a withering 
by pitiless experience. External forces devour the human until it is close 
to absorption by nature. The solitaries are dignified but paralyzed. They 
exist in a melancholy state of contraction from which there is no escape 
through action. Only passive responses are possible: fortitude and en¬ 
durance. The thinness of Wordsworth’s solitaries is another reduction 
of self. Wordsworth said, in the classic maxim of Romantic solipsism, “I 
was often unable to think of external things as having external exis¬ 
tence.” The specificity and density of the male solitaries come from the 
poet’s attempt to externalize them, to pin and fix them as temporary foci 
of perception. But a forbidding open space surrounds them, an agora¬ 
phobic wasteland. As in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Wordsworth’s 
male figures are simultaneously abandoned in dreadful isolation and 
assaulted by malicious waves of natural force. Descartes, Bloom says, 
created “the dumbfoundering abyss between ourselves and the ob¬ 
ject.” 6 The estranged western space between persons is crossed by 
Wordsworth’s eye. He throws his vision out like a harpoon drawing its 
line after it, a harpoon not so much piercing its target as casting about it 
an encapsulating sac of sympathetic emotion, an aura protecting it 
momentarily from the elements. But the force pressing so fiercely on 
these old men is Wordsworth’s “love,” a love that desiccates their flesh 


3 ** 

and crushes them to skeletal scarcity of being. Like Blake in “Infant 
Joy,” Wordsworth demonstrates the secret aggression in Rousseauist 

Wordsworth’s poetry makes an apparently generous extension of sig¬ 
nificance into the most minute and commonplace details of nature, 
benevolent “nurse” of humanity. But in the poems of aged male soli¬ 
taries and in such scenes of “visionary dreariness” as the one in The 
Prelude (XH.251— 61) where a girl bearing a pitcher on her head is 
battered by the wind, a different emotional physics obtains. Instead of 
spiritual expansion, there are stark disproportions, terrifying vacancies, 
energy clusters burst and abraded—sudden sacralizations followed by 
intolerable desolation. The solitaries express Wordsworth’s secret fear. 
They are what is left when mother nature is done with man, dry bones 
she has picked over. Romantic consciousness is unlimited, but the 
image of the self, the body-image, has gotten smaller. In Wordsworth it 
is a tottering old man with palsied hands. The liberated Rousseauist self 
fails to fill the space vacated by religion and society. It has shrunk from 
its role in the great theater of the Christian cosmos. The star has become 
only an extra. Extra means on the very verge of the human, nudged out 
of consciousness into the brute inarticulateness of object-life. Gender 
disappears in Wordsworth not simply because personality is devalued, 
as in Blake, but because human experience is under sentence of extinc¬ 
tion. Arguing that nature is benign, Wordsworth is haunted by a spectre 
of isolation, his own repressed dread of mother nature’s cruelty. 

The aged and infirm male is Wordsworth’s most powerful self- 
identification. Contracted body-image is his psychomorphic topos. The 
solitaries are a nightmare other self, and Wordsworth’s dialogues with 
them are daemonic communion with a doppelganger. On the terrace of 
his villa shortly before his death, Shelley encountered his double, a 
phantom who demanded, “How long do you mean to be content?” 
Wordsworth’s double has a contrary message. The leech-gatherer, with 
his soothing sibylline smile, is an oracle telling his story, then receding 
like a shade in the underworld. He assures the poet that rueful content¬ 
ment is still possible amid universal desolation. The confrontation with 
the infirm doppelganger is a script that Wordsworth writes over and 
over. His poetry is filled with ritualistic returns of this cadaverous spec¬ 
tre, who appears in different places and under different names. The 
Wordsworthian solitary is like Donatello’s late-phase sculptures, scored, 
tormented figures of Gothic leanness and angularity. In their stony 
decrepitude, Wordsworth’s old men are like stalagmites or dolmens, 
picturesque artifacts of affliction. They are highly specific, yet typologi- 

Marriage to Mother Nature 


cal. Their omnipresence in Wordsworth’s poetry is part of his exclusion 
of virile males. Goethe says, “Thought expands, but lames; Action 
animates, but narrows.” 7 Wordsworth’s contracted male bodies have 
been produced by the modern fall of the western hero. The Wordsworth¬ 
ian solitary is sexually composite. He is a male heroine, a passive male 
sufferer. For the poet, both solitary and soul-mate sister are modes of the 
self in half-feminine form. 

If his imagination seeks to pass beyond itself through mental inter¬ 
course with reality, Wordsworth can only be aroused by incarnations of 
nature-inspired femaleness. Perhaps no one spouse is sufficient. Per¬ 
haps the slow succession of protagonists, male and female, in Words¬ 
worth’s story-poems are nominees, candidates who are scrutinized and 
rejected. Only nature, the all-mother, can satisfy the marriage-hunger 
of Wordsworthian imagination. My belief that Wordsworth’s character 
is sexually dual contradicts Coleridge’s assertion: “Of all men I ever 
knew, Wordsworth has the least femininity in his mind. He is all man. 
He is a man of whom it might have been said, ‘It is good for him to be 
alone’.” 8 There is reason to question this subliminally homoerotic state¬ 
ment, as we will see when we examine Coleridge’s anguished character. 
Coleridge said in conversation, “A great mind must be androgynous,” a 
remark paraphrased by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own. She 
goes on to describe major male writers in sexual terms: Shakespeare 
was “androgynous,” Shelley “sexless”; Milton, Wordsworth, and Tol¬ 
stoy had “a dash too much of the male,” Proust “a little too much of a 
woman.” 9 As the years pass, this arresting passage seems more and 
more meaningless to me. One could defend each writer against Woolf’s 
charges, but let’s stick with Wordsworth. Throughout her work, Woolf 
makes the androgyne superior to ordinary virile men, an attitude I find 
mean and parochial. The androgyne is a great creative symbol, but it 
should not usurp the authority of all other sexual personae. 

That Wordsworth is too male is the reverse of the truth. Bloom says, 
“It is true that Wordsworth is almost too masculine a poet.” 10 But is 
there any poem or passage in Wordsworth about which we could say, 
this is too masculine? The most masculine passages in Wordsworth are 
the most Miltonic. But these are among his greatest, for example, the 
ascent of Mount Snowdon. Wordsworth’s sister-spirit helped liberate 
him from Milton’s style, with its ponderous, declamatory Latinism and 
syntactic inversions, which do appear in The Prelude. Later in his 
career, Bloom demonstrated how heavily Milton’s precedent fell upon 
“belated” English poets, who had to struggle against him. In my view, to 
say Wordsworth is “almost too masculine” is to say he is too much in the 



grip of Milton. Too-masculine Wordsworth is a slave, hopelessly swal¬ 
lowed up in his great precursor. So paradoxically, when Wordsworth is 
most masculine, he is poetically most passive! In poetic terms, much has 
come to us by Milton speaking through Wordsworth. In psychobio- 
graphical terms, Wordsworth’s efforts to find a personal voice were 
sexually swamped by Milton. The sadomasochism in this process will 
be directly felt by Wordsworth’s colleague, Coleridge. 

Wordsworth is never too masculine. The real danger in him is the too 
feminine. Wordsworth has several voices. The most male is the Miltonic 
sublime. The most female is the languishing pathos of the story-poems, 
where the sufferings of women, children, and animals are dwelt upon at 
excruciating length. Wordsworth created Victorian sentimentalism. 
Modernism’s cool revolt against Wordsworthian sentiment is typified by 
Oscar Wilde’s cynical resume of a teary Dickens novel: “One must have 
a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” Lewis 
Carroll’s wacky verses, like “The Aged Aged Man,” mock Wordsworth’s 
solemn solitaries. That Wordsworthian pathos lends itself so easily to 
parody suggests there is some real excess in it. The palsied hands of the 
old Cumberland beggar, the grey hairs (significant plural) “worn” by 
the leech-gatherer are grotesque details confining and limiting emotion 
instead of freeing and deepening it. Unlike melodrama, high tragedy 
never depends on overdetermined externals. The leech-gatherer, with 
his sparse grey hairs, reminds me of Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, 
who as a morose widower was overheard loudly moaning as he trudged 
up the stairs, “Why won’t my whiskers grow? Why won’t my whiskers 
grow?” In the sentimental mode, too little is asked to bear too much. 
Wordsworth’s story-poems are self-dramatizations of excessive pathos, 
the ever-present trap in Wordsworth’s world. The story of Margaret, for 
example, a beautiful extract from The Excursion called “The Ruined 
Cottage”: can empathy really be sustained in perfect integrity for as 
long as this woeful tale demands? In fact, is Wordsworth himself capa¬ 
ble of so prolonged a habitation in the sorrows of another? Such senti¬ 
mental narratives are disguised dramas of Wordsworth’s feminine self. 
F. W. Bateson says: “Wordsworth had experienced most of Margaret’s 
miseries. In a sense he was Margaret.” 11 That a writer may enter his 
own fiction as a less developed version of himself is a principle we saw 
operating in Goethe’s Werther and Wilhelm Meister. 

Wordsworth’s poetry is weakened when his identification with a suf¬ 
fering character is too extreme. Empathy degenerates into sentimen¬ 
tality, which I interpret as self-pity, since the protagonists are self¬ 
projections. Wordsworth’s best moments are when he achieves a bal- 


Marriage to Mother Nature 

ance between his male and female voices. This he does in Tintem 
Abbey, which has perfect pitch. It is lean, supple, and majestic. There is 
only one misstep: at the end, Wordsworth recalls “the sneers of selfish 
men.” These are obviously virile males! The poet’s voice turns strident. 
His sneering men are like a row of desperados noisily taking snuff. 
Tintem Abbey maintains emotional balance because of its ritualistic 
extemalization of the sister-spirit. Wordsworth’s address to the numi¬ 
nous Dorothy functions as a correct positioning of the female part of the 
self to the male, like that fine-tuning necessary for Blake’s mobile 
Emanations. Wordsworth turns to his sister and rejoices in her compan¬ 
ionship. He sees her as separate, even as he simultaneously acknowl¬ 
edges her as his mirror-image. His female self-identification is purified 
and strengthened by consciousness. It is candid, not covert. It is in the 
covert self-identifications that Wordsworth falls into sentimental ex¬ 

Coleridge thought Wordsworth’s unknown Lucy was Dorothy— 
whom De Quincey described as having an “unsexual” stride. Com¬ 
menting on “the curious sexlessness” of the Lucy poems, Bateson theor¬ 
izes that Wordsworth’s crisis of 1798 was the increasing threat of incest 
with Dorothy: Lucy’s premature death is Wordsworth’s subconscious 
termination of his “horrible” attraction to Dorothy “by killing her off 
symbolically.” 12 But no Romantic poet except Blake resists incestuous 
fantasies. Far from struggling against incest, Wordsworth elegantly 
assimilates it into his imaginative life. Lucy’s death is like the deaths of 
Dido, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina, the ritualistic slaying of an 
unmanageably feminine element in a male artist. Lucy and Dorothy are 
the female half of the soul. But Lucy is Dorothy escaping control by the 
male half. This is why Lucy is represented as lost, at a distance, elusive. 
Wordsworth searches for her, but it is important he not find her. She is 
the Blakean Emanation who flees in order to dominate. What is sym¬ 
bolically killed off is not incest but sentimentality, the greatest tempta¬ 
tion and danger to Wordsworth’s poetry. Wordsworth’s pathetic story- 
poems are languid Spenserian bowers where the female half of the soul 
lures the male half into drowsy ecstasies of passive surrender. Michel¬ 
angelo, a far more masculine man than Wordsworth, was fascinated by 
similar dreams of voluptuous passivity. 

“What is a Poet?” Wordsworth asks in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. 
“He is a man speaking to men.” But how does a man speak when finally 
free of tradition and form? Wordsworth is bedeviled by male and female 
impulses, which he struggles to harmonize in a single style. Hartman 


3 *S 

says the “I” of Wordsworth’s Prelude does not indicate u a persona- 
consciousness”: “An inner confidence allows him to meet nature, or his 
own emotions, without a persona.” 13 But Wordsworth’s persona is one 
of the strongest, fiercest, and falsest in all poetry. As the intensely 
persona-conscious Wilde said, “To be natural is such a very difficult 
pose to keep up.” There can be no speech, no man speaking to men 
without persona. Words are contaminated with personality. Even in 
journalism, history, or science, there are no words without point of view. 
Wordsworth is under tremendous self-imposed pressure to find a per¬ 
sona, for that is the voice he needs to justify the ways of nature to men. “I 
do,” Wordsworth says to the nature-mother, but he cannot allow him¬ 
self to see her clearly. Censoring out the negativity and savagery in 
nature, he puts his own voice in a bind. Wordsworth is the first humor¬ 
less liberal. Even Rousseau is more self-analytical and aware of his 
quirky perversities. Sade, laughing, sees comedy in cruelty and knows 
there is cruelty in all comedy. Eighteenth-century wit, imitated by 
Wilde, was the most aggressive of rhetorical forms. Renouncing wit and 
repressing nature’s sadism, Wordsworth made bathos his slough of 
despond. The chthonian miasma made a new swamp for her blind son 
to fall into. 

Shelley may have been the first to charge Wordsworth with inhibited 
sexuality. In his satire, “Peter Bell the Third,” Shelley calls Wordsworth 
a “moral eunuch,” “a male prude,” “a solemn and unsexual man,” “a 
male Molly.” Knight says, “The Prelude is peculiarly non-sexual. The 
silence in so general a statement is remarkable.” 14 Trilling declares, 
“There can be no doubt about it, Wordsworth, at the extreme or perver¬ 
sion of himself, carries the element of quietude to the point of the denial 
of sexuality.” 15 Hartman protests this critical current and insists the 
great themes of Wordsworth’s poetry must not be “profaned by such 
partial analysis.” 16 What is partial and reductive in most Freudian 
interpretations of art is that they focus on sex without realizing that sex 
is a subset of nature. Joining Frazer to Freud, as I try to do, solves this 
problem. Everything sexual or unsexual in art carries world-view and 
nature theory with it. The sex in Wordsworth is in the eroticized female 
emotions, which wrap Wordsworth in a numinous cloud whenever he 
descends from the masculine Miltonic sublime. Wordsworth hopes for 
happiness through pure feeling, but the happiest things in his poetry are 
daffodils. His devotions to mother nature simply produce frightful hal¬ 
lucinations of parched, mute spectres, his starved self. Wordsworth 
cannot admit that the hand that will not feed is closed in a fist. Words- 


Marriage to Mother Nature 

worth’s sexlessness is his capitulation to mother nature. She lives for 
him. The prison of society or the prison of nature: leaving one, Words¬ 
worth enters the other. Hence the strange stillness of his poetry, the 
quietude that is really immobility. Energy, sought by Blake, is shunned 
by Wordsworth. Through energy to sex to cruelty: Wordsworth, pursu¬ 
ing Rousseau’s mother nature, embraces a deceiving ghost. 

The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 


Coleridge, unlike Wordsworth, finds nature. Or rather, 
she finds him. Wordworth spent a lifetime editing out of his poetry the 
brute reality that Coleridge frankly faces: the daemonism of nature. In 
Christabel , inspired by the rape cycle of The Faerie Queene , Coleridge 
destroys Wordworth’s Rousseauist world of feminine tenderness. Chris¬ 
tabel is one of the most misread poems in literature. Critics have pro¬ 
jected a Christian moralism upon it. Coleridge himself could not bear 
what he had written, and he tried to revise and reinterpret long after¬ 
ward. Christabel is a splendid case study of the tension between imagi¬ 
nation and morality. Through it, we follow a great poet into his excess of 
daemonic vision and then out again into the social realm of humane 
good wishes, where the visionary is beset by doubt, anxiety, and guilt. 
Christabel shows the birth of poetry in evil, hostility, and crime. 

To arrive at Christabel , we must tour Coleridge’s other major poems 
to demonstrate their eccentric sexual character. His favorite proverb 
was “Extremes meet.” He calls imagination “that synthetic and magical 
power,” producing “the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discor¬ 
dant qualities.” 1 In Christabel , opposites come together so powerfully 
that Coleridge could not shape the poem according to his stated inten¬ 
tion. It is no coincidence that his supreme works are dream poems. 
Freud says dreams disregard “the category of contraries and contradic¬ 
tions”: “ ‘No’ seems not to exist so far as dreams are concerned.” 2 No, 
says the Decalogue, thou shalt not. Much of Coleridge’s conscious life 
was devoted to defenses of Christianity. In the poetry welling up from 
his dream life, however, the Judeo-Christian no is obliterated by sex¬ 
ually dual daemonic powers. “Grant me a nature having two contrary 
forces,” he once wrote. M. H. Abrams sees influence here from the 


The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

Cabalists, Bruno, Boehme, and Swedenborg. 3 The synthesis of contrar¬ 
ies comes to Coleridge from outside orthodox Christianity. He is draw¬ 
ing on the underground current in western culture, that promiscuous 
pagan mixture of Hermeticism, alchemy, and astrology. His essay on 
alchemists (1818) is less crucial than the dream poems themselves, 
morally unstable concoctions boiling over with daemonic energy. 

Coleridge’s “primary Imagination” is “the infinite I AM.” 4 The self- 
divinizing Romantic poet displaces Jehovah. His “I AM” is cosmos- 
devouring. It confers upon the artist that inalienable right to self- 
assertion we see in the Decadent Late Romantic cult of self. In Wilde, 
for example, Coleridge’s theory turns into the ideal of personality as a 
work of art and of the life as superior to the work. Wilde says, “The true 
artist is a man who believes absolutely in himself, because he is abso¬ 
lutely himself.” 5 Poetic identity as infinite ego: we will see this at work at 
the opening of Christabel , where Geraldine wills herself into existence 
out of the darkness. 

Coleridge contrasts true imagination with uninspired “Fancy,” mere¬ 
ly “a mode of Memory” playing with “fixities and definites.” If we extend 
this distinction psychologically, fancy’s fixities become rigid sex roles 
inherited from the past. Coleridge says of “secondary Imagination,” “It 
dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create.” His dream poems 
are metamorphoses of psyche where primary imagination uses second¬ 
ary imagination to dissolve sexual personae. The poems are an alchemic 
bath of swirling Dionysian liquidity. From the dissolution of morality 
and history comes daemonic re-creation, a synthetic Homunculus. Over 
all Coleridge’s great poems hovers a strange androgyne, a fabricated 

Coleridge’s sexual ambiguities are already evident in “The Eolian 
Harp” (1795), a far stranger poem than scholars admit. It is nearly 
schizophrenic in its argument with itself. Sara, the wife named again 
and again, is merely a symbol of the social and moral, with which 
Coleridge never managed to achieve correct relation. Husband, citizen, 
pious Christian: these were chimeras that taunted the poet; these were 
personae that he strove toward and never won. Criticism sees “The 
Eolian Harp” as a hymn to marital bliss. But what the poem shows is a 
sexual turbulence that will erupt two years later in the mystery poems. 

The wind-harp of the title begins a High Romantic tradition, reach¬ 
ing its peak in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” It is a vehicle of sexual 
self-transformation. The poet is a passive instrument played upon by 
the masculine Muse-force of nature. Coleridge openly eroticizes the 
metaphor from the start: the harp is “by the desultory breeze caress’d, / 

* Coleridge 


Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover.” Scholars, sexually 
normalizing the poem, identify Sara with the coy maid. But Sara is 
imaginatively peripheral. Coleridge addresses her only to remind him¬ 
self who or what he should be. Every allusion to Sara is tense and 

Romantic poems are radically solipsistic. Coleridge, not Sara, is the 
coy maid. His ecstatic self-projections are always feminine: “Full many 
a thought uncall’d and undetain’d, / And many idle flitting phantasies, / 
Traverse my indolent and passive brain.” For Coleridge, like Words¬ 
worth and Keats, indolence is creative, a drowsy dream state into which 
the unconscious releases images uncensored by intellect. The indolent 
male has a female receptivity. This passage, deceptively pleasant and 
airy, becomes cruelly darker when read in the light of the later mystery 
poems. By the time we get to Christabel, “idle flitting phantasies” will 
not just traverse but rape the poet’s brain. Femininity is dangerous. 
What enables the poet to speak here will stop all speech later. 

In “The Eolian Harp,” Coleridge swerves back and forth between his 
sense of social and religious duty and his longing for erotic and creative 
passivity. To get these things together at one moment would seem 
impossible. Yet that is what happens the night Coleridge listens to 
Wordsworth recite The Prelude , which he celebrates in a peculiar poem, 
“To William Wordsworth” (1807). Here it is clear that, for Coleridge, 
spiritual exaltation means sexual self-immolation. Roll, Jordan, roll: 
Wordsworth’s voice sweeps over Coleridge in wave after wave of bardic 
power: “In silence listening, like a devout child, / My soul lay passive, by 
thy various strain / Driven as in surges now beneath the stars.” He feels 
like “a tranquil sea, / Outspread and bright, yet swelling to the moon.” 
Coleridge is a wind-harp vibrating to someone else’s music. Words¬ 
worth speaks for nature and crushes Coleridge by the enormity of his 
achievement. There is no dialogue, only monologue, an intercourse of 
brute assertion and thrilling receptivity. The scene is distinctly erotic. 
The swelling sea-soul echoes Wordsworth’s sonnet of the prior year, 
“The World Is Too Much With Us,” where the sea “bares her bosom to 
the moon.” Wordsworth and Coleridge were locked in a sadomasochis¬ 
tic marriage of minds, where Wordsworth kept the hierarchical advan¬ 
tage and Coleridge surrendered himself to ritualistic self-abasement. 

Coleridge, we saw, curiously said of Wordsworth, “He is all man.” 
Not only is this not true of Wordsworth, but it rings with homoerotic 
infatuation. Tortured, inconstant Coleridge saw in Wordsworth’s cold 
composure a kind of masculine resoluteness. Wordsworth needed Cole¬ 
ridge as much as Coleridge needed Wordsworth. I argued that when 


The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

Wordsworth’s voice is at its most masculine (significantly, in The Pre¬ 
lude ,) it is in poetic terms at its most passive because most Miltonic. The 
night reading of The Prelude is a spectacle of shamanistic black magic. 
Wordsworth, dominated by Milton, dominates Coleridge. Poetic iden¬ 
tity, gelling and melting, streams down a cascade of hierarchical levels, 
a sexual feudalism of master-slave relationships. Let us recall it is 
Coleridge whom The Prelude most continually addresses. Coleridge’s 
submissiveness allows Wordsworth to emerge intact from his flooding 
by Milton in that poem. Coleridge, listening to it, is Danae impregnated 
by Zeus’s golden shower. Coleridge puns on the idea of spiritual insem¬ 
ination in the second line, where he says of The Prelude , “Into my heart 
have I received that Lay.” He is penetrated and filled by Wordsworth, to 
whom he abandons himself. Sex is poetry; poetry is sex. 

Coleridge did his best work under Wordsworth’s influence. After they 
separated, Coleridge languished poetically and never matched his early 
achievements. The nature of their collaboration was this: Wordsworth 
was a father/lover who absorbed Coleridge’s self-punishing superego 
and allowed his turbulent dream life to spill directly into his poetry. The 
supreme irony, as we shall see, is that everything that is great in Cole¬ 
ridge is a negation of Wordsworth. This is the son’s ultimate revenge 
upon the father. Wordsworth’s leading moral idea of nature’s benev¬ 
olence is annihilated in Coleridge. Coleridge sees the chthonian horror 
in nature that Wordsworth could not acknowledge. The vampires of 
Christabel and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are the true nature- 
mother. Wordsworth reawakened sleeping pagan nature-cult, then flew 
from the spectres he had roused. How easily Wordsworth was assimi¬ 
lated into bourgeois nineteenth-century culture. His Protestant moral- 
ism was his barrier against the daemonic. It is pagan Coleridge, not 
Protestant Wordsworth, who is the begetter of nineteenth-century ar¬ 
chetypal vision. The Decadent Late Romantic line of Poe, Baudelaire, 
Moreau, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Swinburne, Pater, Huysmans, Beards¬ 
ley, and Wilde descends directly from Coleridge’s mystery poems. By 
his pregnant servitude to Wordsworth, Coleridge bore monstrous chil¬ 
dren who would destroy their father. 

Tutelary relationships are filled with sexual ambiguities. Coleridge 
calls Wordsworth “O Friend! my comforter and guide! / Strong in thy¬ 
self, and powerful to give strength!” But perhaps the teacher is never 
strong except in teaching. Perhaps teaching is a kind of vampirism in 
which mesmerizing assertions of authority drink the energy they arouse. 
I find two parallels to the alliance between Wordsworth and Coleridge. 
In Jane Austen, Emma’s intimacy with the docile Harriet, upon whom 



she imposes calamitous pretensions, arises from her own narcissistic 
oscillations of sexual identity. In Virginia Woolf, ugly, clumsy Doris 
Kilman binds the beautiful young Elizabeth Dalloway to her by a 
domineering authority hiding doubt and self-contempt. In all three 
cases, teaching is an erotic transaction. A submissive companion be¬ 
comes the audience toward whom a hierarchic persona is theatrically 

Performance and audience are multiply present at the end of “To 
William Wordsworth.” “Round us both / That happy vision of beloved 
faces”: this ring of eyes is one of Coleridge’s persistent motifs. Words¬ 
worth as “comforter and guide” is Beatrice and Vergil combined; the 
faces of family and friends are celestial circles of the mystic rose. Rising, 
in the final line, to find himself “in prayer,” Coleridge appeals not to 
God but to Wordsworth. And what he prays for is more poetry—his 
own. The universe has become a theater of sex and poetry. Wordsworth, 
performing, is watched by Coleridge. But Coleridge, seduced and in¬ 
seminated by Wordsworth, is watched by the ring of eyes. The poem 
dissolves into a magic circle that is primal scene and family romance. In 
similar passages in Whitman and Swinburne, the erotic ecstasy of a 
masochistic male heroine is strongly stimulated by a ring of attentive 
eyes. “To William Wordsworth” is a luridly pagan poem. Incantation by 
a god-priest in a cult of personality leads to ritual public intercourse. 
Climax is epiphany and transfiguration. Sexual exhibitionism and voy¬ 
eurism are at the heart of art. Here as in Christabel , the hunger for 
conversion is expressed as a hunger for rape. 

Literature’s most influential male heroine is the protago¬ 
nist of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Wordsworth was the first to 
notice the Mariner’s passive suffering. In the 1800 edition of Lyrical 
Ballads , Wordsworth lists the “great defects” of the poem: “first, that the 
principal person has no distinct character . . . secondly, that he does not 
act, but is continually acted upon.” Bloom speaks of the Mariner’s 
“extraordinary passivity.” Graham Hough equates the ship’s motion¬ 
lessness with “complete paralysis of the will.” George Whalley goes 
further: “The Mariner’s passivity is Coleridge’s too.” 6 My reading of 
The Ancient Mariner makes this passivity the central psychological fact 
of the poem. I reject moral interpretations, typified by Robert Penn 
Warren’s canonical essay. Edward E. Bostetter argues against Warren 
point by point: “The poem is the morbidly self-obsessed account of a 
man who through his act has become the center of universal atten¬ 
tion.” 7 Two hundred sailors, dying, stare dolefully at the Mariner. The 


The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

male heroine, by operatic self-dramatization, is a prima donna tri¬ 
umphing through exquisite public suffering. The eyes of the universe 
are fixed on him. Coleridge’s ring of eyes is part paranoiac reproach, 
part eroticizing adoration. Eyes crucify his protagonists, pinning them 
in immobilized passivity, an uncanny world fear. 

Sagas of the male heroine are always artistically endangered by the 
serpentine dynamic of self-identification. The Mariner, with his “long 
grey beard” and “skinny hand,” recalls those Wordsworthian solitaries 
of “grey hairs” and “palsied hand” in whom I see a self-identification by 
the poet so extreme as to debilitate the text by sentimentality. Parts of 
The Ancient Mariner are ill-written to the point of Lewis Carroll parody: 
“ ‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’ / Eftsoons his hand dropt he.” 
“The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast, / For he heard the loud 
bassoon.” “Four times fifty living men . . . With heavy thump, a lifeless 
lump, / They dropped down one by one.” Rhyme is merely ritualistic 
chiming, the darkening cloud of fate. Stanzas fall into slapstick and 
heedlessly sail on. The Ancient Mariner is one of the greatest poems in 
English, yet what it achieves is almost in defiance of language. Vision 
and execution often wildly diverge. Coleridge’s sober “conversation 
poems” are in better taste; but they are minor works in literary history, 
belonging to the age of sensibility, and would never have made the 
poet’s fame. The same disjunction of form and content afflicts Poe, 
Coleridge’s heir. The French accused America of slighting her greatest 
poet in Poe, who may sound better in Baudelaire’s translation than in 
English. Poe, like Coleridge, is a giant of imagination, and imagination 
has its own laws. In Poe’s tales and Coleridge’s mystery poems, the 
daemonic expresses itself nakedly. Dionysus always shakes off rules of 
Apollonian form. 

Coleridge and Poe are seized by visions that transcend language, that 
belong to the dream experience beyond language. Psychoanalysis, I 
said, overestimates the linguistic character of the unconscious. Dream¬ 
ing is a pagan cinema. The wit of dreams comes from treating words as 
if they were objects. Coleridge and Poe have written works of cinema. 
Had film been available as a medium, perhaps that is the form they 
would have chosen, for language here is only an obstruction to vision. 
Evaluating the language of The Ancient Mariner by Renaissance or 
Augustan standards would be depressing. There are a few great lines in 
it; for example, “And ice, mast-high, came floating by, / As green as 
emerald.” I maintain that all such wonderful moments in The Ancient 
Mariner look forward to ChristabeL, that ChristabeL, with its cold green 
snake, is struggling to be bom throughout this poem. The rhetorical 



weaknesses in Coleridge and Poe have been produced by a warp of self- 
identification. Vision drives with such force from the unconscious that 
the craftsmanlike shape-making of consciousness lags behind. 

The Ancient Mariner ; a rhapsody of the male heroine, is filled with 
piercing arias: “Alone, alone, all, all alone, / Alone on a wide wide sea! / 
And never a saint took pity on / My soul in agony.” Emotional expres¬ 
sionism of this kind is possible in Italian but not in English. At his 
maudlin fall, Shakespeare’s Richard II cries, “My large kingdom for a 
little grave, / A little, little grave, an obscure grave” (IILiii. 152-53). 
Intensified littleness gives you a cartoon pinpoint of dancing dwarves. 
Coleridge’s intoning “alones” overpopulate themselves, baying like a 
canine chorus. Sheer velocity of identification makes him miss the 
infelicity of rhyming “thump” with “lump.” There is too much agrarian 
comedy latent in our Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. The principle at 
work in The Ancient Mariner, as in “To William Wordsworth,” is pagan 
sexual exhibitionism. Self-pity in The Ancient Mariner is like the self- 
flagellation of the ancient goddess-cults. It is neither callow nor sick. It 
is a ritual device to facilitate daemonic vision. The Romantic male 
heroine is a self-emasculating devotee of chthonian nature. 

Personae in The Ancient Mariner form a sexual allegory. The poem 
begins with the Mariner stopping the Wedding-Guest as he enters a 
marriage banquet. The scene’s deep structure is exactly the same as at 
the opening of Christabel: a stranger with a “glittering eye” puts a spell 
on an innocent, who falls under daemonic compulsion. The Mariner 
detains the guest with his tale of woe, which takes up the whole poem. 
At the end, the guest gloomily turns away from the Bridegroom’s door 
and departs. The merry feast goes on without him. My theory is this: 
Bridegroom, Wedding-Guest, and Mariner are all aspects of Coleridge. 
The Bridegroom is a masculine persona, the self comfortably integrated 
in society. This virile alter ego is always perceived longingly and at a 
distance, through an open door through which come bursts of happy 
laughter. The Wedding-Guest, “next of kin” to the Bridegroom, is an 
adolescent supplicant aspiring to sexual fulfillment and collective joy. 
To achieve this, the Wedding-Guest must merge with the Bridegroom. 
But he is always prevented from doing so by the appearance of a spectre 
self, the Mariner, the male heroine or hermaphroditic self who luxuri¬ 
ates in passive suffering. It’s a case of always the bridesmaid and never 
the bride. The Wedding-Guest turns away at the end because once 
more the hieratically wounded self has won. The Guest will never be the 
Bridegroom. As many times as he attempts to pass through the door to 
the place of festivity, the Mariner will materialize and paralyze him with 


The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

his seductive tale. This doorway is the obsessive scene of the Cole- 
ridgean sexual crux. Ostracism and casting out are the Romantic road 
to identity. Will that doorway ever be breached? Yes, in Christabel. And 
only by the most bizarre strategy of perversity and transsexualism. 

The apparently pivotal event in the Mariner’s tale is the killing of the 
albatross, from which follow all his sufferings. From the moment I read 
the poem in high school, I thought the albatross a superficial appen¬ 
dage, a kind of pin the tail on the donkey, and I found the stress on it by 
teachers and critics unconvincing and moralistic. Long afterward, I 
learned it was Wordsworth who suggested the idea of the albatross to 
Coleridge, which proves my point. This albatross is the biggest red 
herring in poetry. Its only significance is as a vehicle of transgression. 
The Mariner commits an obscure crime and becomes the focus of 
cosmic wrath. But he is as blameless as the shadow heroes of Kafka, 
who are hauled before faceless courts of law. In the world of The Ancient 
Mariner ; any action is immediately punished. Masculine assertion is 
rebuked and humanity condemned to passive suffering. 

Blake’s “Crystal Cabinet” contains the same dramatic crisis: the 
moment the male acts, he is expelled into the wilderness. Blake’s male 
is changed to a weeping babe in infantile dependency on a weeping 
woman. Coleridge’s Mariner is also propelled backward to a maternal 
world. The ship is becalmed: “The very deep did rot: O Christ! / That 
ever this should be! / Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / Upon the 
slimy sea.” Stasis, slime. This is a vision of primal nondifferentiation, 
the chthonian swamp of generation. The universe has returned to one 
big womb, claustrophobic, airless, teeming with monstrous prehuman 
' mud creatures. The Mariner’s appeal to Christ is the opposite of what it 
seems. It shows that Coleridge, despite his conscious assent to Chris¬ 
tianity, understands with the intuition of a great poet that the swamp- 
world of the Great Mother precedes the world of Christ and is ready at 
any moment to engulf it. Two remarks prove that Coleridge literally vi¬ 
sualized a chthonian swamp: he once spoke of the “Sands and Swamps 
of Evil” and elsewhere of lust as “the reek of the Marsh.” 

The Ancient Mariner is one of Romantic poetry’s great regressions to 
the daemonic and primeval. Every man makes a marine voyage out of 
the cell of archaic ocean that is the sac of womb-waters. We all emerge 
covered with slime and gasping for life. “The many men, so beautiful! / 
And they all dead did lie: / And a thousand thousand slimy things / 
Lived on; and so did I.” All hopes for beauty and manhood lie dead. 
Male power can never surpass female power. We live in the slime of our 
bodies, which hold imagination hostage. Our mother-bom bodies are 


3 2 5 

unregenerate nature, beyond God’s redemption. The “slimy sea” of 
chthonian nature nullifies the words of Christ. Coleridge is over¬ 
whelmed by a pagan vision coming to him from below and beyond his 
own ethics. The Ancient Mariner transports its Gothic tale out of the 
historical world of castles and abbeys into the sublime theater of a 
desolate nature. But expansion of space is just another cul-de-sac. 
Coleridge brilliantly converts the open sea into a rotting sepulchre, 
which I called the daemonic womb of Gothic. This is one black hole 
from which Christ will never rise. The Ancient Mariner is the source of 
Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, with its disastrous voyage in 
a womb-tomb ship. Evolution and motion are an illusion in the dank 
prison space of chthonian nature. Hence the male heroine’s crushing 
passivity. Mankind staggers under the burden of mother nature. 

Language, I said, is mutilated for vision in The Ancient Mariner. Thus 
the appeal to good has a backlash effect, sparking the birth of evil. Invo¬ 
cation of Christ’s name fails to release the Mariner from his imprison¬ 
ment in ocean’s nightmare womb. When a sail appears on the horizon, 
there is a moment of hope and joy. The Mariner attempts a new prayer: 
“Heaven’s Mother send us grace!” But sacred language is profaned by 
daemonic revelation. On the ship is the grossest female apparition: 

Her lips were red, her looks were free, 

Her locks were yellow as gold: 

Her skin was as white as leprosy, 

The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she, 

Who thicks man’s blood with cold. 

Appeals to sky-cult are useless. As if irritated by references to her 
benign successor, the tender Madonna, the ur-mother makes her sen¬ 
sational appearance. She is the Whore of Babylon, the daemon un¬ 
bound. Her lips are red with provocation and the blood of her victims. 
She is all health and all disease. She is a masque of the red death, a 
Medusa who turns men to stone but also the mother who stirs the blood 
pudding of her sons till their bodies congeal in her womb. To give life is 
to kill. This is heaven’s mother, who comes when called. She is the 
vampire who haunts men’s dreams. Aubrey Beardsley depicts a Cole- 
ridgean epiphany of the vampire Madonna in The Ascension of St Rose 
of Lima. Mary, lasciviously embracing St. Rose, hovers in the air like a 
poison black cloud. Another monstrous epiphany occurs in Ingmar 
Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961), where a mad girl sees God 
as a sexually aggressive spider. 

The Ancient Mariner surges forward on its wave of daemonic vision 


The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

from Parts I through IV, but then something happens. Parts V through 
VII are a muddle. The poem recovers only when the Mariner’s tale 
ceases and the narrative frame resumes, where the Mariner delays the 
Wedding-Guest at the Bridegroom’s door. The Ancient Mariner drags 
on pointlessly for too long, and I think I know where and why it goes 
wrong. As Part IV ends, the Mariner sees water-snakes in the sea: 
“Blue, glossy green, and velvet black, / They coiled and swam; and 
every track / Was a flash of golden fire.” This is one of the great 
moments in Romantic poetry. We are back at the dawn of time. Firma¬ 
ment has not yet separated from the waters. The sun is only a yolky 
yellow in the albuminous jelly of the mother-stuff. Primeval ocean 
swarms with slimy life. But the water is also man’s body shot with veins. 
These serpents, writhing with Vergilian opalescence, are the chains that 
bind us, our physical life. Man is a Laocoon bedeviled by serpents. We 
all struggle in the toils of our mother-born body. Why are the sea- 
snakes veins? Because, as I said, all great lines in The Ancient Mariner 
look forward to Christabel , where the vampire has exquisite “blue- 
veined feet.” Geraldine, the green snake who strangles the dove, is the 
daemon of chthonian nature, trampling man in her triumph of the will. 

Coleridge has penetrated far into the daemonic realm. Too far, for 
there is an immediate retreat into conventional emotion. Vision fails, 
and the poem begins to drift. Why? What have the sea-snakes roused 
that Coleridge cannot face? The Mariner’s response to them is embar¬ 
rassingly simplistic. “A spring of love” gushes from his heart, and he 
blesses them. The moment he can pray, the albatross falls from his neck 
and into the sea. How dreadful to see our shaman-poet unmasked, 
cranking the bellows of afflatus like a stagehand. Coleridge is over¬ 
come by anxiety and surrenders to Wordsworth and to Christianity. 
Love and prayer are a ludicrously inadequate response to the chtho¬ 
nian horror that Coleridge has summoned from the dark heart of 
existence. The roiling sea-snakes are the barbaric energy of matter, the 
undulating spiral of birth and death. What is the proper response to this 
ecstatic hallucination? Coleridge is hemmed in. His protagonist, the 
Mariner, is insufficiently advanced as a sexual persona. The male hero¬ 
ine will need to be revised if daemonic vision is to be sustained. Christa¬ 
bel is a rewriting of The Ancient Mariner in new and more daring terms. 
There, as we shall see, when the protagonist meets the serpent face of 
nature, there will be no swerving away. The poet, disguised so that 
Wordsworth can no longer find him, will hurl himself into the chtho¬ 
nian abyss. 

The problem with moral or Christian readings of The Ancient Mari- 



Tier is that they can make no sense of the compulsive or delusional 
frame of the poem. If the “spring of love” felt by the Mariner were 
imaginatively efficacious, the poem should be able to conclude. Or at 
the very least, it should permit the Mariner to be redeemed. But the 
falling off of the albatross is followed by three more parts. And even at 
the end of the poem, the Mariner is still forced to wander the world, 
repeating his “ghastly tale” again and again. Having introduced a 
benevolent emotion into his daemonic poem, Coleridge is at a loss how 
to proceed. A new cast of characters is hustled in—seraphs, a Pilot, a 
Hermit. There is confused dialogue, a fuzzy twisting and turning. Here 
is the point: the moment the Mariner prays, the moment good rather 
than evil triumphs, the poem falls apart. At the end of Part IV, Cole¬ 
ridge is overwhelmed with fear at what he has written and vainly 
attempts to turn his poem in a redemptive direction. The superego acts 
to obscure what has come from the amoral id. Nineteen years later, 
Coleridge added the marginal glosses still adorning the poem. These 
dithery festoons are afterthoughts, revisions that often depart crucially 
in tone from the text they “explain.” We hear in them the Christian 
Coleridge trying to soften the daemonic Coleridge, exactly as the older, 
Urizenic Wordsworth “corrected” his early nature poetry. By rational¬ 
ization and moralization, Coleridge strove to put out the daemonic fires 
of his own imagination. 

The poetic discordancies are blatant in the conclusion. The Mariner 
says, “O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been / Alone on a wide wide 
sea: / So lonely ’twas, that God himself / Scarce seemed there to be.” 
This is the truth. In the cosmos of The Ancient Mariner, Jehovah has 
been obliterated by the vampire mother who rises from the slime of 
nature. But the Christian Coleridge keeps stitching the veil he has rent. 
The Mariner illogically goes on to celebrate communal churchgoing 
under the kind gaze of the “great Father” and ends his message: “He 
prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small; / For the 
dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all.” What a frail twig to 
cling to in the maelstrom of chthonian nature. This is like Blake’s ironic 
moral tags, evasive distortions of the severity of experience depicted in 
his poems: “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm”; “Then 
cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.” The Mariner’s 
farewell stanzas are a poetic non sequitur. They contradict everything 
that is great in the poem. Coleridge himself seems to have sensed this, 
for long afterward he remarked that The Ancient Mariner had “too 
much” of a moral in it: “The only or chief fault, if I might say so, was 
the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader.” 


The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

Imagination has the last word anyhow in The Ancient Mariner. Here 
are the closing lines, as the Wedding-Guest turns away from the Bride¬ 
groom’s door: “He went like one that hath been stunned, / And is of 
sense forlorn: / A sadder and a wiser man, / He rose the morrow mom.” 
If one accepts the Christian interpretation of the poem, how explain 
this peculiar reaction? The Wedding-Guest is not morally strengthened 
by the Mariner’s exhortations. He is plunged into gloom and severed 
from society. The Mariner counsels Christian love, but the Wedding- 
Guest walks away as if the Mariner has said, “There is no God, and 
nature is a hell of appetite and force.” But this is the secret message that 
the Wedding-Guest has divined, the message that has slipped past 
Coleridge despite his vigorous efforts to steer the poem in a morally 
acceptable direction. The guest arises the next day “a sadder and a 
wiser man,” because through the smokescreen of the Christian finale 
has come the terrible revelation of Coleridge’s daemonic dream vision. 

Now to consider “Kubla Khan” in terms of sexual per¬ 
sonae. The poem’s poet-hero is both omnipotent emperor and mad 
prophet and outcast. He dwells in magic circles—domes and ritual 
precincts, the sacred spaces of art. His power comes from below, the 
hell of chthonian nature that erupts in The Ancient Mariner. From 
earth’s still womblike caverns come phallic geysers of force, tossing 
boulders like hail. Nature pants in sexualized spasms of creation. The 
poet from his light-flooded dome of imagination surveys nature’s sav¬ 
age enormity, prehuman and premoral. He cannot control it, but he is 
its voice. Art synthesizes glassy Apollonian form with coarse Dionysian 
flux. The dome is state and skull, riding the serpent desires of bowels 
and belly. 

Coleridge’s protagonists are always sexually dual. Contraries meet in 
the poet of “Kubla Khan”: 

And all should cry, Beware! Beware! 

His flashing eyes, his floating hair! 

Weave a circle round him thrice, 

And close your eyes with holy dread, 

For he on honey-dew hath fed, 

And drunk the milk of Paradise. 

The Mariner has become a mental traveller. He is a prisoner of percep¬ 
tion. Voluptuary and ascetic, he feasts by fasting. The food of the gods 
makes him less and more than a man. Bloom says he is “the youth as 
virile poet.” 8 But there is no virility here. He is an androgyne tied to the 



stake. Celibate and solitary, he is the Wedding-Guest who cannot be 
Bridegroom. A thousand doors are closed to him. He is the gift-bringer 
as beggar, the alien who can never cross the threshold. 

The poet is a beautiful youth in the Hellenistic style, an ephebic 
kouros of female emotionalism. His flashing eyes and floating hair 
combine masculine power with feminine beauty. Flashing eyes may 
command and pierce, but they can also be inviting without ambiva¬ 
lence, as in vivacious maidens whose eyes dance with light. A poet’s eye 
flashes in this second sense; it is like a movie screen flickering with 
spectral images. The poet is feminine because passive to his own vision. 
He is arresting because arrested. His senses are a house of detention. 
His eyes are the barred window of poetry. 

Floating hair normally belongs to the female canon of beauty. One 
thinks of Botticelli’s Venus, Rita Hayworth, Hedy Lamarr. But during 
the late 1790s, when “Kubla Khan” was written, long unpowdered hair 
symbolized youth, vitality, and nonconformity. Coleridge’s flashing 
eyes and floating hair appear in portraits of Napoleon, like Gros’s 
Bonaparte at Arcole or David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps , where the 
hero’s long hair flares in the wind of destiny. In “Kubla Khan,” the 
poet’s hair lifts by lyric afflatus; he is an Aeolian lyre played by the 
wind. I said the hyacinthine hair of the beautiful boy erotically en¬ 
tangles the observer’s eye. Even in Napoleon’s streaming hair there is 
something cross-sexual. It was the feminine element in Napoleon’s 
charisma, a principle I think always sexually dual. Napoleon wore long 
hair only while he was young and lean, an aspiring outsider. His 
cropped Caesar-style hair belongs mainly to the imperial period, when 
he tended toward corpulence. What was earlier expressed by his hair 
now resided in the female fleshiness we see in David’s Napoleon in His 
Study , where the emperor, burning the midnight oil, caresses his own 

The poet of “Kubla Khan” is also a gaunt outsider of cometlike 
charisma. His floating hair is his hermaphrodite banner, taunting and 
narcissistic. Long hair is the badge of many warrior cultures, Spartan to 
Sikh. But in the main line of western sexual personae, long hair has 
been and will remain the language of feminine eros. A long-haired 
male is, consciously or unconsciously, calling attention to something 
feminine in him. He makes himself a sex object passive to the probing 
eye. This was clearly the case with the seventeenth-century Cavaliers, 
whose portraits have a stunning epicene glamour. The west has per¬ 
sistently and probably correctly associated long male hair with a dan¬ 
gerous because entrancing and self-entranced egotism. We see this as 


The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

early as the Biblical tale of Absalom, with his Alcibiades-like career of 
beauty and sedition. The long, unkempt hair of Coleridge’s poet is 
sexually, socially, and morally defiant. It is natural because informal, 
but it is perverse because self-divinizing and autoerotic. 

Dangerous: the poet of “Kubla Khan” is enclosed in a zone of “holy 
dread.” He is an untouchable, a carrier of charisma kept under quaran¬ 
tine. He has an eerie sexual iridescence. Masculine and feminine dilate 
about him like a solar corona. People cry, “Beware! Beware!” But not 
because he is virile. He is not a man who acts but a man who sees. He 
can induce hallucinations in others as well as himself. “Kubla Khan” 
follows archaic ritual rules. Frazer says, “Holiness, magical virtue, 
taboo, or whatever we may call that mysterious quality which is sup¬ 
posed to pervade sacred or tabooed persons, is conceived by the primi¬ 
tive philosopher as a physical substance or fluid, with which the sacred 
man is charged just as a Leyden jar is charged with electricity.” Else¬ 
where he says, “The primitive mind seems to conceive of holiness as a 
sort of dangerous virus, which a prudent man will shun as far as 
possible, and of which, if he should chance to be infected by it, he will 
carefully disinfect himself by some sort of ceremonial purification.” 9 A 
Maypole circle is woven around Coleridge’s poet to contain his excess 
of mana. Magic against magic: society uses all its defenses against the 
dangerous radiance of art. 

“Kubla Khan” ends in double ceremonies, as the poet soars into 
trance and as society salts the ground he stands on. This is scorched 
earth, a temenos where nothing will grow again. The poet is gifted but 
cursed, condemned to social exclusion. Coleridge chillingly closes the 
eyes of humanity to his poet—that is, to himself. It is a real-life game of 
blindman’s bluff. At this mystic moment, all eyes are sealed. Artist and 
audience are at war. The poet is a nonperson, subject to mass shunning. 
He suffers “the Silence,” the ostracism imposed by military cadets on 
one who has broken the honor code. We must remember this for Chris - 
label, where the heroine is cruelly shunned after her election by the 
daemonic and where she is imprisoned in her own silence. The poet is a 
visionary who sees too much and is tortured by his visions. He is a 
scapegoat fed on delicacies, like Aztec victims before their slaughter or 
like Roman volunteers in army camps who enjoyed every sensual in¬ 
dulgence before being ritually executed. The poet is blind, maimed, 
lame. His imagination is free, but his body is bound in ritual limitation. 
He is a daemonic Apollo, an oracle maddened by intoxicants, here sap 
and milk, fluids of Dionysus. As a sexual persona, Coleridge’s poet is a 


33 * 

suffering hermaphrodite, a sacred monster, breeding genies from the 
sterile air. 

Christabel is the destination to which the Coleridge an 
line of sexual ambiguity runs. Destination as epic goal and as tragic fate 
or fatality. Destination is termination in Christabel Poetry falls under 
sentence of death. Trance ends in paralysis and language in silence. In 
this poem, Coleridge created a daemonic plenum from which he could 
not escape. Wordsworth is annihilated, and Coleridge is free. But his 
freedom has been purchased by sexual and metaphysical enslavement, 
a shamanistic transformation so complete that the poet became invis¬ 
ible to readers, even though he is standing squarely before them. 

Christabel has an odd history. Its two parts were written in 1797 and 
1800. Coleridge withheld it from publication, but it circulated privately 
in manuscript. Its release in 1816 was at the urging of Byron, who loved 
it and called it the source of all of Sir Walter Scott’s verse tales. Cole¬ 
ridge never regarded Christabel as done and claimed plans for three 
more parts. His mind returned fretfully to the poem for years, and his 
inability to finish it was an abiding disappointment. For a century, 
critics have advanced various theories to account for this. The corpus of 
commentary on Christabel is very small. Probably no poem in literary 
history has been so abused by moralistic Christian readings. Its blatant 
lesbian pornography has been ignored or blandly argued away. 

The Christian interpretation of Christabel found ample justification 
in Coleridge’s remark to his friend Gillman that the theme of the final 
poem would be “that the virtuous of this world save the wicked.” The 
contradictions between Christian sentiment and poetic vision are even 
more radical in Christabel than in The Ancient Mariner. Little here 
supports what Coleridge declared his moral program. Piety is blasted 
by a night wind. Heaven is conquered by hell. Virtue does not and 
cannot redeem in the poem. The greatness of Christabel comes from its 
lurid pagan pictorialism. It is an epiphany of evil. Mother nature re¬ 
turns to retake what she lost. Christabel is a daemonic screenplay, a 
script for an apocalyptic comeback. Behold the star: the lesbian vam¬ 
pire Geraldine is the chthonian reawakened from its earthy grave. 

That daemonic vision is the true heart of Christabel is demonstrated 
by Shelley’s reaction at first hearing. When in Geneva Byron recited 
some memorized passages, Shelley shrieked and rushed from the 
room. He was found trembling and bathed in sweat. During the de¬ 
scription of Geraldine, he saw eyes in the nipples of Mary Godwin, his 

The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

future wife. This is reported by Polidori, who was present, and con¬ 
firmed in a letter of Byron. Shelley’s vision of the archetypal phallic 
woman shows that the poem’s amoral essence was instantaneously 
transmitted from one great poet to another. Coleridge’s imagination is 
invested not in “the virtuous of this world” but in daemonic personae of 
hermaphrodite force. Christabel is a psychologically archaizing poem. 
Far from proving Christian truth, it abolishes Christianity and returns 
the psyche to a primitive world of malignant spirit-presences. Cole¬ 
ridge the Christian was the first misreader of Coleridge the poet. 

Christabel rewrites The Ancient Mariner by reversing its movement. 
Daemonic revelation occurs not on the high seas but in the citadel of 
state. Evil invades the secret cells of body and mind. Christabel is a 
boudoir epic. Sex, the point of intersection between man and nature, is 
contaminated. The poem opens with the lady Christabel leaving her 
father’s castle at midnight to pray for her betrothed knight. As at the 
start of The Ancient Mariner ; there is an impulse toward conventional 
marriage that will be defeated. Christabel is an innocent who believes 
love and virtue go together. Her mission of heterosexual piety will be 
grotesquely defiled by the poem. Sex will turn and sting the Christian 
will. Christabel’s maiden voyage into archaic night is foolish and possi¬ 
bly provocative. She summons the very evil she hopes to quell. Neither 
Christianity nor Wordsworthian nature can defend her. A bleak, deca¬ 
dent sterility has turned the green leaves grey. Persephone in the 
meadow is about to be raped, but her assailant is the earth-mother and 
her dark prison her own home. 

Even as Christabel kneels in prayer, the daemonic drama begins. “It” 
has moaned, the brute sexless, sexfull thing, the stirring form of pagan 
nature waking from its long sleep. The poet’s voice interjects: “Hush, 
beating heart of Christabel! / Jesu, Maria, shield her well!” We recall 
another appeal to heaven in The Ancient Mariner, an appeal answered 
by a leprous vampire. The Coleridgean moral inversion operates again. 
Christian prayer produces pagan epiphany. Heaven is either deaf or 
sadistic. The materialization of the vampires in Christabel and The 
Ancient Mariner perversely awaits the invocation of a divine name. It is 
as if daemonic power is intensified by Christian assertion. A lust for 
profanation hangs in the air like a shadow-mist. It suddenly takes 
brilliant shape. In a burst of luminous, numinous cinema, the vampire 
Geraldine appears in all her white beauty. “Mary mother, save me 
now!” says Christabel, pressed by that harsh Coleridgean irony. The 
Madonna becomes the serpent in the garden. In her embrace, Christa¬ 
bel will fall; her touch will be the mark of Cain exiling Christabel from 



her race. ChristabePs trust and good will are a blank spot of tender 
passivity in nature, as in Blake’s Spenserian “Infant Joy.” The benign is 
devoured by its context, hungry black flames of daemonic energy. 

Geraldine gives birth to herself by “the infinite I AM” of Coleridgean 
imagination. She is poetry leaping full-armed from the unconscious, a 
hermaphrodite Muse. The voices of art in Coleridge prophesy not 
peace but war. Art is conflict, turbulence, negation. And art mirrors 
nature, from which Wordsworth has finally been driven. The vampire 
Muse makes poetry in Christabel by seduction and corruption. Poi¬ 
soned words will lead to poisoned sex. She lies in order to lay. “Stretch 
forth thy hand, and have no fear!” Geraldine says to Christabel. After a 
long falsehood, the invitation is repeated, this time successfully. 
Geraldine seems to evoke the unconscious complicity of her prey. 
Bloom rightly calls Christabel a “half-willing victim .” 10 

The vampire’s satanic temptations are garnished by spurious sex- 
romance. She assumes the frailest feminine persona. Five warriors 
have kidnapped her from her father’s house and abandoned her: “Me, 
even me, a maid forlorn.” The irony of Geraldine’s tale of rape is that 
she is herself a rapist. What Christabel hears is what is to be done to 
her. Psychologically, the tale translates to: men are brutes! This is how 
Geraldine severs Christabel’s mental connection with her betrothed 
knight and induces her to give her hand. The daemonic mother lures 
the bride backward, away from menarche into the womb of regression. 
In Coleridge’s plan for the conclusion, Geraldine was to impersonate 
Christabel’s fiance, by transsexual ruse. In Part I, we see that Geraldine 
has already replaced him. Once Geraldine has won her first victory, she 
has won everything. She has made her first penetration of ChristabePs 
psyche and now manipulates her thoughts. It is Christabel who intro¬ 
duces the idea of “stealth” and who proposes they share the same bed. 
From such covertness come erotic intensity, trespass, and shame. 

Geraldine’s strategies are modelled on Spenser. Her woeful tale 
echoes the one told by duplicitous Duessa to the Redcrosse Knight in 
the first book of The Faerie Queene. In the forest Geraldine recalls 
Belphoebe and in the castle Malecasta. ChristabeV s sexual style, its 
combination of cool medieval beauty with voluptuous embowered evil, 
is uniquely Spenserian. Coleridge, like Blake, senses the decadent 
perversity in Spenser. ChristabeV s rape theme comes from the rape- 
infested Faerie Queene . But virginity has lost its Christian militancy. No 
armour defends Coleridge’s heroine against sexual predators. Christa¬ 
bePs simple femininity is her undoing. Daemonic rapacity surges into 
her and obliterates her maidenhood. She is no match for hermaphro- 


The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

dite aggression. There is no longer a working Christian scheme to 
divert lust into sublimation. The Spenserian bower where Christabel is 
lost is her own. 

Invitation to the rape: from Christabel’s hospitable gesture to her 
actual seduction there are 140 lines. A long distance must be traversed. 
The Mariner’s epic voyage is internalized. But “the moat” is crossed at 
the moment of Christabel’s assent. This is her Rubicon, from which 
there is no turning back. The 140 lines are a dreamlike sarabande, both 
funeral and wedding march. In stages drawn from Shakespeare’s Rape 
ofLucrece , the poem follows each step of Geraldine’s invasion of gate, 
court, hall, chamber. The castle of Christabel’s father resembles the 
metaphorical ruined castle of Goethe’s Werther. In Coleridge, the male 
castle of society and history is entered and disordered by the chthonian. 
But the castle is also Christabel’s body, which is systematically pos¬ 
sessed by Geraldine. The “little door” unlocked by Christabel’s key is 
her own chastity. 

At the gate, Geraldine sinks down, and Christabel must carry her 
through it. Bloom says, “Geraldine cannot cross the threshold, which 
probably is charmed against her.” 11 In old Scandinavia, an ax was 
buried beneath the threshold to guard a house against lightning—and 
to prevent a witch from entering. Similarly, ancient cities were pro¬ 
tected by founders’ bones entombed in the gate lintel. Jackson Knight, 
we saw, shows that virgin goddesses were patrons of cities because the 
integrity of walls was imagined as a virgin’s hymen. Hence the Trojan 
horse brought down Troy: as it passed the gate, it broke the magic spell 
protecting the city. Taboos governing the sanctity of walls were so strict 
that a Roman soldier who leapt the camp wall instead of leaving by the 
gate was executed, for he had broken the defenses; this appears to be 
why Romulus kills Remus for jumping his new wall. Thus in 
Christabel , Geraldine’s passage through the iron gate from which an 
“army in battle array” has marched is a Trojan subterfuge. Hidden in 
ChristabePs arms, she simultaneously overthrows male power and pen¬ 
etrates the virgin’s body. She is the cunning sacker of cities, dangling 
from the lamb’s wool. 

ChristabeV s breached gate is the doorway which could not be crossed 
in The Ancient Mariner. The Wedding-Guest has finally become the 
Bridegroom. Christabel lifting Geraldine over the threshold is the 
groom with her bride. She has begun her daemonic marriage to Ger¬ 
aldine, from which there can be no divorce. Geraldine is “a weary 
weight,” the terrible burden of our physical life. Christabel staggers 
under the tree of nature upon which Blake sees us crucified. The 



doorway is Coleridge’s sexual crux, his via cmcis. Geraldine’s advance 
through the castle will be recast by Poe in The Masque of the Red Death , 
where bloody biology triumphs over all. Geraldine too is a masquer, 
mother nature who uses her Wordsworthian mask of beauty to hide her 
chthonian brutality. In Poe the midnight chamber holds a clock, in 
Coleridge a bed. Both are epiphanies of maternal power. Geraldine and 
Christabel’s slow passage has an abstract formality, a religious solem¬ 
nity. Seduction (“leading astray”) becomes induction, initiation into 
daemonic mysteries. The poem’s eroticism is generated by this me¬ 
thodical movement, which inflames by anticipation and suspense. 
Darkness, seclusion, and silence accentuate Christabel’s tantalizing 
sexual vulnerability. 

The procession moves through the castle as if through a church, nave 
to chancel to altar, the bed of seduction. No guard or hierarch rises to 
block the queen’s sweep of the board. The presiding male, Sir Leoline, 
is ill and asleep. The watchdog, with animal instinct, moans but does 
not wake. Only in the bedchamber does Geraldine meet resistance, 
from the ghost of Christabel’s mother, a guardian spirit springing out 
like the sacristan of the sanctuary. The mother died at the hour of 
Christabel’s birth, vowing she would hear the castle bell strike twelve 
on her daughter’s wedding day. The poem begins with the tolling of 
midnight. So this is Christabel’s wedding day, and she is about to 
consummate her perverse nuptials. In this poem, good strangles itself; 
birth leads to death: pregnancy is a terminal disease. The wine made by 
Christabel’s mother from wildflowers—presumably Wordsworth’s daf¬ 
fodils!—serves only to energize the vampire in her territorial war. 
Geraldine grapples with the ghost and repels her: “Off, wandering 
mother! . . . this hour is mine. . . . ’tis given to me.” Given by whom? 
God and fate take the side of evil. Archaic night makes her inexorable 

After her mother’s defeat, Christabel is completely at Geraldine’s 
mercy. The triumph of the daemonic is signified by Christabel kneeling 
at her side. Geraldine has subdued the cosmos of the poem, and she is 
now its deity. Christabel obeys without question Geraldine’s command 
to unrobe herself: “So let it be!” In other words, “I do.” They are 
married. She lies down in bed to await her master. Like the poet of 
“Kubla Khan,” Christabel is a sacrificial victim, whom we actually see 
led to the altar and laying herself down nude upon it. Christabel is 
Iphigenia meekly awaiting the stroke of the knife. Geraldine is the high 
priest praying before her bloody task—but she prays to herself, the 
daemonic will. Murder here is sexual intercourse, for sex is how mother 


The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

nature kills us, that is, how she enslaves the imagination. Nature draws 
first blood, of virgins, of us. Like “To William Wordsworth,” the poem 
climaxes in a pagan ritual sex act. Christabels ceremonialism con¬ 
tinues in the deliberate preparations for bed, a sexual mime. This is one 
of the points the Christian Coleridge tried to fudge. Twenty years after 
writing the poem, he inserted seven lines (255—61) in which Geraldine 
“seeks delay” before laying down with Christabel and taking her in her 
arms. The reader must never be misled by the attempts of Coleridge the 
anxious reviser to cover the work of Coleridge the visionary. Vampire 
and conscience are mutually exclusive. The poem in its fine original 
inspiration presents a Geraldine who never hesitates, who cannot hesi¬ 
tate, who is implacable. 

There is a mystery when Geraldine undresses. “Behold! her bosom 
and half her side— / A sight to dream of, not to tell! / O shield her! 
shield sweet Christabel!” What is revealed by the daemon’s unveiling? 
G. Wilson Knight speaks of “some sort of sexual desecration, some 
expressly physical horror.” 12 In Part II, Christabel has a chilling flash¬ 
back: “Again she saw that bosom old, / Again she felt that bosom cold.” 
Scholars immediately recognized this as a detail from The Faerie 
Queene: when beautiful Duessa is stripped, she has “dried dugs, like 
bladders lacking wind” (I.viii.47). Waking the next morning, Christabel 
sees her companion’s “heaving breasts.” Geraldine must be a classic 
vampire of great age, her breast withered only when she hungers. After 
she has sated herself, whether by drinking blood or somehow draining 
her victim’s life-energy, her breasts recover sensual fullness. In Part II, 
Christabel remembers “the touch and pain,” so something surgical has 
definitely occurred! 

Whatever is repellent about Geraldine’s bosom, it is the identifying 
mark of a witch. In her study of European witch-cult, Margaret Murray 
describes another mark, the “little Teat,” which appeared on odd parts 
of the body and “was said to secrete milk and to give suck to the 
familiars, both human and animal.” Supernumerary breasts or nipples 
are a medical anomaly found on chest, abdomen, shoulder, buttock, or 
thigh. 13 A withered bosom, misplaced nipples, multiple breasts: the 
witch’s body is a perversion or parody of the maternal. It is fitting, 
therefore, that Geraldine’s sole opponent is Christabel’s benevolent 
mother, and it is a severe truth about the poem that this power is 
crushed and expelled. The witch, with her animal teats, is virtually a 
third sex. She is the ugliness of procreative nature. She is the chthonian 
mother who eats her children. 



A third sex: how does Geraldine sexually violate Christabel? Cole¬ 
ridge says of the two as they lie together: 

A star hath set, a star hath risen, 

O Geraldine! since arms of thine 
Have been the lovely lady’s prison. 

O Geraldine! one hour was thine— 

Thou’st had thy will! 

The star which has set is Jesus’. The star which has risen is the ancient 
sign of the daemon, the sexual scorpion. The prison is the embrace of 
mother nature, from which Jesus cannot redeem us. Geraldine has had 
her “will” of Christabel. This locution belongs exclusively to male 
experience. It is not used of a woman anywhere else in major literature. 
The sole analogy I find is in the journal of Victoria Sackville-West, who 
describes carrying off her lover Violet Trefusis to a French hotel two 
days after the latter’s wedding: “I treated her savagely, I made love to 
her, I had her, I didn’t care.” 14 “I had her”: how strange the language of 
masculine possession sounds in a female context. In Coleridge, female 
sexual receptivity is mysteriously transformed into the power to rape. 
What happens? If there is draining of blood, it must occur with men- 
talized orgasmic excitement, like the cloudy feverishness of Carmilla , 
J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Victorian tale of a lesbian vampire obviously 
inspired by Christabel 

Can there be a phallic subtext to this daemonic intercourse? There is 
an ambiguity about the body of Spenser’s Duessa. Fradubio surprises 
her at her bath: “Her nether parts misshappen, monstrous, / Were hid 
in water, that I could not see, / But they did seeme more foule and 
hideous, / Than womans shape man would beleeve to be” (I.ii.41). This 
is inconclusive, but when Duessa is unmasked, the poet speaks in his 
own voice: “Her nether parts, the shame of all her kind, / My chaster 
Muse for shame doth blush to write” (viii.48) He seems to give the most 
depraved female evil a penis. A modem British woman reported that as 
she and the female medium sat nude at a London seance, an icy 
“phantom penis” left the medium’s genitals, crossed the space between 
them, and entered her. 

Rising from her bed next morning, Christabel says, “Sure I have 
sinn’d!” She remembers nothing, but her sense of lost innocence is 
acute, for the witch has entered her, body and mind. Geraldine sleeps 
satisfied like a man, the triumphant seducer, while the violated girl 
weeps in shame. She is humanity after the fall. Her eyes are open. She 

The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 


knows we are naked, defenseless against nature. Wordsworthian illu¬ 
sions about mother nature are over. Incest and cannibalism are the 
lovemaking of man’s family romance. Christabel has been impreg¬ 
nated by the Muse and bears the burden of fear and suffering. “The 
vision of fear, the touch and pain”: her sexual crucifixion is a spectacle 
of sadomasochistic bondage. Her pain may be from the vampire’s bite 
or from deviant penetration. In medieval covens, the Devil performed 
ritual public intercourse with a forked penis, entering his devotees 
through two orifices. Initiation into ancient nature-cults always in¬ 
volved some abuse of the body, from flagellation to castration. In Chris - 
tabeV s pagan epiphany, the daemon returns in an orgy of Dionysian 
pleasure-pain. Vampire and poem are a raptor-rapture of monstrosity. 

Geraldine’s daemonic aggression resides in her eye. Vampires have a 
phallic eye, probing, penetrating, riveting. In the hallway, the hearth 
fire flames, “And Christabel saw the lady’s eye, / And nothing else saw 
she thereby.” She is obsessed, subjugated. At her moment of maximum 
power in the bedchamber, Geraldine rises to her full “lofty” height, an 
erection fueled by her dominance of the mother-spirit, Christabel’s 
submission and genuflection, and the wine she changes into Christa- 
bel’s blood. This is the full moon of the vampire eye: “Her fair large 
eyes ’gan glitter bright.” Bloom says Geraldine, like the Ancient Mari¬ 
ner, is “a hypnotist or mesmerist.” 15 Christabel’s seduction is a sexual 
hypnotism. Freud says the “blind obedience” of hypnosis comes from 
an “unconscious fixation of the libido on the person of the hypno- 
tizer.” 16 Thus Christabel spiritually participates in her own defloration. 

ChristabeV s hypnotism theme will recur in the mesmerism of Haw¬ 
thorne’s The Blithedale Romance. The lesbian tension between femi¬ 
nine Priscilla and willful Zenobia comes from the liaison of Christabel 
and Geraldine: 

As yet, the girl had not stirred. She stood near the door, fixing a 
pair of large, brown, melancholy eyes upon Zenobia,—only upon 
Zenobia!—she evidently saw nothing else in the room, save that 
bright, fair, rosy, beautiful woman. It was the strangest look I ever 
witnessed; long a mystery to me, and forever a memory. . . . She 
dropped down upon her knees, clasped her hands, and gazed 
piteously into Zenobia’s face. Meeting no kindly reception, her 
head fell on her bosom. 17 

“And nothing else saw she thereby.” The look blotting out all else; the 
kneeling and dominance and submission: Hawthorne’s decadent eroti¬ 
cism is a homage to Coleridge. Poe also recasts Geraldine as the fierce 



Ligeia and toothsome Berenice, phallic fixators and revenants of the 
daemonic graveyard. And Coleridge’s lesbian couple will end up, by 
way of Hawthorne, in Henry James’s The Bostonians , where Perseus 
rescues Andromeda from the seacoast hoard of the feminist vampire. 

The phallic optics of Coleridge’s mystery poems arises from the war 
between vision and language that disrupts The Ancient Mariner. In 
Shelley’s sex vision, menacing female eyes signify the omnipotence and 
ubiquity of procreative nature. The daemonic turns man to stone. Jane 
Harrison calls the Gorgon an “incarnate Evil Eye”: “The monster was 
tricked out with cruel tusks and snakes, but it slew by the eye, it 
fascinated.” 18 Fascination is the black magic of art, love, and politics. 
Kenneth Burke remarks: “The theme of fascination in Coleridge’s 
‘Mystery Poems’ is that of an ambivalent power. He gives us, as it were, 
a poetic thesaurus dictionary of terms ranging from thoroughly ‘good’ 
fascination to thoroughly ‘bad’ fascination.” 19 Fascination is ambiva¬ 
lent because love is ambivalent. The Latin fascinare, “to enchant, be¬ 
witch, charm,” is related to the Greek baskainein , “to use ill words” as 
in slander but also “to bewitch by spells or by means of an evil eye.” 
Fascinare and baskainein are linguistically connected to words of 
speaking, Latin farari and Greek phaskein, “to say.” As she lies down 
with Christabel, Geraldine says, “In the touch of this bosom there 
worketh a spell, / Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!” Next 
morning, Christabel cannot tell her pain or appeal for help. Evil eye 
and magic spell: daemonic sorcery deprives its victim of speech, hur¬ 
tling them backward through history to the animal realm. Thus Circe’s 
most sadistic torture is stopping the mouths of Odysseus’ men. Minds 
acute in their swine bodies, they can only grunt. ChristabeV s heroine is 
plunged into muteness. Her “vision of fear” obliterates language. 

The vampire’s power to fascinate derives from the snake’s legendary 
ability to immobilize its prey by fixing its eyes upon it. The fear freezing 
an animal in its tracks and the fear paralyzing a person beneath the 
vampire’s gaze are one and the same. It is an emanation of the cruel 
hierarchy of biology. The Gorgon who petrifies and the vampire who 
seduces achieve their ends by sudden hierarchic assertion. That the 
penis is power is one of the social lies men tell themselves to overcome 
their fear of the daemonism of sex. That woman can drain and paralyze 
is part of the latent vampirism in female physiology. The archetype of 
the femme fatale began in prehistory and will live forever. 

The vampire’s authority is a form of charisma, the power enabling a 
leader to suspend the will of his followers and induce them to sacrifice 
themselves for his personal vision. Hitler, we noted, called the masses 


The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

feminine: the ability to entrance and focus the minds of a nation is a 
form of sexual seduction. Politics and theater were interrelated long be¬ 
fore the age of mass media. An actor with stage presence, innate author¬ 
ity, masters the audience. A “spellbinding” orator literally casts a spell. 
He “captures” attention. An audience is “captivated” or “enthralled,” 
meaning enslaved (a thrall is a slave or bondman), when no one stirs 
restlessly or chatters to his neighbor, when it’s “so quiet you could hear a 
pin drop.” Metaphors of sex and power abound in political and artistic 
performance. The speaker dominates the plape of eye contact. All eyes 
are fixed on him, as if hypnotized. The audience is propelled into immo¬ 
bilization and muteness , ancient prerogatives of the daemon. Actor and 
fiction operate on an audience by subduing the rebellious body and fix¬ 
ing the mind on one spirit-governing focal point. Fascination is becalm - 
ing, that condition of erotic passivity in which the Ancient Mariner sees 
the vampire of nature at sea. Vision, silence, castration. We are ap¬ 
proaching the sexual center of Coleridge’s mystery poems. 

Fascination is both the theme and genesis of Christabel. Part I ends 
with Christabel still in Geraldine’s arms. I will argue that this encom¬ 
passes the totality of Coleridge’s vision and that the second part written 
three years later, as well as his rough plan for three more parts, was bom 
of fear at what he had already created. Christabel remained unfinished 
because, try as he might, Coleridge could not turn his daemonic saga 
into a parable of Christian redemption. Even Part II ends with Christa- 
bel’s father abandoning her and allying himself with false Geraldine. 
Coleridge’s conscious mind wills the victory of virtue. But his uncon¬ 
scious replies: evil is older and will endure. Part I, ending, says of 
Christabel, “But this she knows, in joys and woes, /That saints will aid if 
men will call: / For the blue sky bends over all!” Christian interpreters 
have missed the terrible irony of these lines. For Coleridge, we saw, 
calling heavenly powers brings disaster Christabel suffers from the 
pathos of rationalization of Blake’s exploited chimney sweeps. She is 
like the rape victims of The Faerie Queene, whose femininity invites 
disaster, or the heroine of Sade’s Justine , or Good Conduct Well Chas¬ 
tised (originally called The Misfortunes of Virtue). Good is actually a 
titillation to lust and provokes the vampire’s assault. Paganism stakes its 
claim in the virgin heart of Christian virtue. 

The transition from Part I to Part II is jarring. We pass from sinister 
dreaminess to farce. The poem goes flat. Unimportant people pop up 
and down ringing bells and telling beads. We meet Christabel’s father, 
Sir Leoline, whom the poet should have left snoring. Scholars have 
noticed the sudden loss of mythic intensity but have neither explored 



nor explained it. Humphrey House, for example, says, “The two parts 
differ so much from each other, that they scarcely seem to belong to the 
same poem.” 20 1 must amend my critique: there are two fine passages in 
Part II. The first depicts Geraldine and Christabel waking together in 
the bedchamber (360—86). The second records the bard Bracy’s omi¬ 
nous vision of a ‘‘bright green snake” coiled about a dove’s body (547- 
56). But both these passages reinvoke the sexual intercourse of Part I. In 
other words, the best poetry of Part II has been produced by daemonic 
infection from Part I, a contagion of vice. 

Why is Part I so much stronger? The poem’s greatness resides in the 
seductive vampirism of Geraldine. It was inspired by a vision of a female 
persona of overwhelming force. Everything in the poem is subordinated 
to Geraldine. Coleridge manipulates character, time, and place to form 
an admiring circle about her, from which she radiates her cold hieratic 
glamour like a sun king. Christabel is structured by an archaic tech¬ 
nique of ornamental display, a ritual exhibitionism. Gods descend when 
man is in crisis, but the daemon ascends from her bed of ghostly loam. 
Heterosexuality has failed: matemalism is weak and masculinity in 
decay, the father’s armour a musty relic. Art can see but not act: the bard 
warns but is not believed. Father spurns daughter in Lear-like dis- 

The world of Christabel has run down and is ripe for apocalypse. Into 
this vacuum steps the lesbian vampire, dazzlingly beautiful, relentlessly 
masculine. Like . 4 s You Like It, Christabel is an alchemic experiment 
whose main event is the crystallization of a rebis or hermaphroditic 
personality. The poem is an alembic of superheated psyche. Energy is 
released and rebonded. Vampires make vampires: Christabel, “hiss¬ 
ing,” has been genetically altered, irradiated by the daemonic. Fascina¬ 
tion, capture, possession, transfiguration. 

Christabel is Coleridge dreaming aloud. Kathleen Cobum thinks 
Coleridge could not finish the poem “because it was too closely a 
representation of his own experience.” She connects Geraldine’s ad¬ 
vances to the poet’s nightmares, “in which one gathers he was fre¬ 
quently pursued by unpleasing female figures”: “Geraldine is a malig¬ 
nity out of Coleridge’s own dreams.” 21 Here, from his notebooks, are 
two such dreams: 

a most frightful Dream of a Woman whose features were blended 
with darkness catching hold of my right eye & attempting to pull it 
out—I caught hold of her arm fast—a horrid feel—Wordsworth 
cried out aloud to me hearing my scream— 


The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

I was followed up & down by a frightful pale woman who, I 
thought, wanted to kiss me, & had the property of giving me a 
shameful Disease by breathing in the face 

& again I dreamt that a figure of a woman of a gigantic Height, 
dim & indefinite & smokelike appeared—& that I was forced to 
run up toward it— 22 

Coleridge records many dreams of sexual assault, some by males. Once 
he feels a man “leaping on me, & grasping my Scrotum.” Bostetter sees 
the similarity between Geraldine and Coleridge’s nightmare woman, 
whose size Norman Fruman connects to that of the “tall” and “lofty” 
Geraldine. 23 If Geraldine is the imposing figure who pursues Coleridge 
in his dreams, then we must logically infer some element of self- 
identification in Christabel. Cobum says Christabel is “significantly 
one side of his own nature.” But these insights, which should have been 
so consequential for interpretation of the mystery poems, are left un¬ 
developed, tottering on the edge of the sexually problematic but not 
plunging into it. 

Christabel contains one of the greatest transsexual self-transforma¬ 
tions in literature. I spoke of the drama of the male heroine in The 
Ancient Mariner, a complex of self-identification sliding into sentimen¬ 
tality. In Christabel, the residual maleness of the male heroine is gone, 
and gender has shifted completely to the female. Christabel is Cole¬ 
ridge, a poet condemned to fascination by the daemonic. The poem 
begins a peculiar nineteenth-century tradition in which a sexually am¬ 
bivalent poet paints a scene of intense lesbian eroticism in order to 
identify himself, by a daring warp of imaginative gender, with the 
passive partner. Balzac’s Byronic (and therefore Coleridgean) The Girl 
with the Golden Eyes starts the French version of this theme, which 
produces Baudelaire’s Delphine and Hippolyte , from which in turn 
come Swinburne’s Anactoria and Verlaine’s and Pierre Louys’ Sapphic 
idylls. Christabel is a ritual of surrender to pagan corruption. Its heroine 
is entranced, morally drugged, powerless to flee from an irresistible 
power. The vampire Geraldine, an enlargement of the sea-witch of The 
Ancient Mariner, is the dominatrix of Coleridge’s psychic and poetic life. 
She is cruel mother nature, whose second coming lays Wordsworth to 
rest. She will take Coleridge beyond rescue, to the entombed inner 
place where Wordsworth cannot hear his night cry. 

Clues within the poem corroborate the identification of Coleridge 
with Christabel. The bard dreams of Sir Leoline’s pet dove, named for 
Christabel, lost in the forest, “a bright green snake / Coiled around its 



wings and neck”: “With the dove it heaves and stirs, / Swelling its neck 
as she swelled hers!” He wakes as the clock strikes twelve. It is the hour 
of Christabers marriage, now being consummated: dove and snake, 
locked together, heave, stir, and swell in spasms of pain and ecstasy. 
Coleridge was drawn to this hybrid image. In “Dejection” (1802), he 
declares: “Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind, / Reality’s 
dark dream!” His opium addiction, he once said, was a way of “escaping 
from pains that coiled round my mental powers as a serpent around the 
body and wings of an eagle!” Thus this metaphor, where he is a bird in 
the grip of a snake, abode with the poet. Man’s body is the mortal coil, 
and imagination is the serpent-stung bird that cannot fly. Man lies in 
chains of sex and nature. 

Next is the curse laid by Geraldine on Christabel’s power of speech, 
keeping her from informing her father of the rape. This detail must 
come from the ancient tale of Philomela, a rape victim whose tongue is 
cut out to ensure her silence. Coleridge mentions her in “The Night¬ 
ingale” (1798). “O’er-mastered by the mighty spell,” Christabel can 
utter only a single sentence. Her hermaphrodite spouse is “lord of her 
utterance.” Christabel is like Melville’s Billy Budd, an innocent en¬ 
snared by a homosexual conspirator and undone by a speech impedi¬ 
ment. Christabel struggling to speak is a prophetic self-portrait of Cole¬ 
ridge the poet, whose achievement was abortive. By modem standards, 
Coleridge left an enormous body of work of vast scope. But he died 
under the burden of great expectations, his own and others’. His master¬ 
piece evaded him. Poetry came to him only in fragments. Hence his 
apologia, needless to us, for “Kubla Khan,” with its spurious knock on 
the door. Toward the end of life, Coleridge wrote in his notebooks, 
“From my earliest recollection I have had a consciousness of Power 
without Strength—a perception, an experience, of more than ordinary 
power with an inward sense of weaknesse.” Hazlitt said of him, “His 
nose, the rudder of the face, the index of the will, was small, feeble, 
nothing—like what he has done.” 24 Coleridge thought he had “a feeble, 
unmanly face”: “The exceeding weakness , strengthlessness, in my face, 
was ever painful to me.” After first meeting him, Carlyle said, “His 
cardinal sin is that he wants will. He has no resolution. 

Christabel mute is Coleridge irresolute. Her truncated speech is like 
Lewis Carroll’s stammer, which appeared in the challenging company 
of adults, never children. Carroll portrays himself in Alice as the earth- 
bound, dowagerlike Dodo bird, whose name is how Charles Dodgson 
would have stammered his own last name. Christabel’s inability to 
speak is Coleridge stammering. It represents within the poem the poet’s 


The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

inability to complete the poem itself. Thus the spell laid upon Christa- 
bel is also laid upon Coleridge. It is his struggle with language, his fear 
of betrayal by and helpless alienation from language. The inability to 
speak is a dark spot in the poem, a melanoma that may spread and stop 
* all poetry. The danger is that Coleridge will become a Philomela with 
her tongue tom out. Kiss but don’t tell. The dark spot is a place of 
dangerous vision where words have not coalesced. It is a magic circle of 
frail tissue where there should be bone, like the soft spot on a baby’s 
head. I think of the first great script of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone , 
“Little Girl Lost,” where a hole in a bedroom wall sucks a child into 
another dimension. So in the boudoir-dominated Christabel , the failure 
of speech is a zone of desolation that may draw Coleridge’s poetry into 
nonbeing. The vampire Muse of Christabel is a Sphinx, the Greek 
“Strangler.” She is the riddle of nature that the poet cannot solve. She 
brings vision but steals speech. Geraldine is the mother of lies. The 
serpent in the garden is a suave forked tongue, eating and entering the 
sanctified body of innocence. 

Thus Coleridge as Christabel is a tongueless male heroine who is no 
longer identifiably male. He is the “coy maid half yielding to her lover” 
in “The Eolian Harp” and the “woman wailing for her demon-lover” in 
“Kubla Khan.” Christabel in the vampire’s arms is a lyre sadistically 
played upon by daemonic nature. But her music is silence. The story of 
nature cannot be told, for she will always betray the heart that loves her. 
By land and by sea: the Ancient Mariner’s compulsive storytelling is an 
early, lesser version of Christabel’s muteness. The Mariner tries to solve 
by excess of words the mystery that silences Christabel. Christabel (Part 
I) is the profounder poem. It is not marred by The Ancient Mariner's 
sentimentality; its language is dignified, seamless. Why? The Wedding- 
Guest cannot get through the doorway of The Ancient Mariner because 
he is still male. The marriage may go on, but he will not see it. In 
Christabel , the doorway is breached and the marriage occurs because 
the poet has jettisoned his gender. He disappears into his heroine and 
marries his Muse, who will speak for him. Geraldine is a ventriloquist. 
She writes the poem, and Christabel suffers it. Coleridge at his sexually 
most self-abased is at his poetically most potent. Art transfigures by 

Extremes meet in Christabel : vice and virtue, male and female, na¬ 
ture and society. All is dominated by the daemon. There is no more of 
the Ancient Mariner’s self-pity, only moral, emotional, and sexual ex¬ 
tremity. Christabel is a perfection of extremity. It is a hierosgamos, an 
unholy marriage, and the boudoir is a mountaintop of vision, where the 



poet is mounted by the Muse. As in “To William Wordsworth,” it is an 
epiphany, a peak experience. Geraldine is the poetic will, pure primeval 
id. As in “Kubla Khan,” those struck by prophecy are trapped in taboo. 
Christabel is shunned, persecuted. Touched, touching, untouchable. 
Elected by the daemonic, she is made , that is both violated and initiated. 
Like Clodius in drag, Coleridge penetrates the ancient mysteries. Pa¬ 
ganism sweeps back into culture. A new phase of history is kicked off by 
rape. Christabel , I think, is one source of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.” 
Geraldine is the brute god who stuns, rapes, and abandons. 

The poem’s Christian theme has been completely misread. Christa¬ 
bel is the Christian Coleridge, the hopeful moralist perpetually de¬ 
feated by the daemonic. The she-that-is-he will never emerge from her 
enslavement. In Christabel Christianity is abolished by a return of the 
chthonian. The “love and charity” ending Part I are the epitaph of the 
Christian Coleridge. Virtue is invoked only to increase the Sadean 
perversity of transgression. The rape is more passionate, more evil 
because of the borderlines set up for it to overcome. Christabel, the 
beautiful Christ, meets her ruin in the barbaric ugliness of mother 
nature, the old, cold bosom where every man is bom and buried. 

Christabel is a sexual apocalypse in which Coleridge no longer sees 
the hermaphrodite god through a glass darkly but face to face. His 
fascination by Geraldine has made her the autocratic tyrannos of the 
poem, to the detriment of everything in Part II. She illustrates a princi¬ 
ple I call psychoiconicism: it governs literary works whose primary 
inspiration is an experimental, charismatic persona, appearing epi- 
phanically, in iconic frontality. The figure is invested with so much 
psychic power that other characters lose fictive energy and fade into the 
background. Sir Leoline, for example, is merely a sketch, part of the 
decor. Psychoiconicism resembles the register method of Egyptian wall 
art, where the hierarchically central figure is three times larger than 
lesser mortals. Psychoiconicism is produced by the west’s obsessive 
ritualization of personality. Spenser’s Amazonian Belphoebe is psycho- 
iconistic. Her scale of representation is startlingly disproportionate to 
that of characters around her, with whom her dramatic interaction is 
awkward and stilted. Psychoiconicism accounts for the inequality be¬ 
tween Rosalind and her admirers in As You Like It and for the expository 
patchiness of Woolf’s transsexual Orlando, . Hermaphrodite visions have 
a life of their own. They are vampires upon their own texts. 

Geraldine is one of the greatest androgynes of art. She has a refined 
feminine beauty but a masculine spirit. She is like the narcissistic 
witch-queen of Snow White , the wicked stepmother of fairy tales who is 


The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire 

a projection of the repressed negativity of and toward the real mother. 
Christabel protests her father’s alliance with Geraldine like a child 
refusing to accept a widower’s new wife. The poem’s lesbianism is 
paralleled by the family romance of Snow White, in which Bloom sees 
traces of mother-daughter incest. Walt Disney’s Snow White, which I 
saw at three, had the same stunning effect on me that Christabel did On 
Shelley. The witch-queen is a persona lying utterly outside the moral 
universe of Christianity. It is a pre-Christian form of the malevolent 
nature mother. 

In Christabel, pagan imagism triumphs over the Judeo-Christian 
word. It is fitting, therefore, that the only modem parallels to Geraldine 
occur in cinema, our machine of the aggressive eye. Marlene Dietrich in 
Morocco, Maria Casares in Orphee and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, 
Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn, Stephane Audran in Les 
Biches: elegance, sophistication, composure, cold lesbian will. The 
vampire eye penetrates space and time. ChristabeFs voyeurism, like that 
of The Faerie Queene , reflects the unacknowledged voyeurism of west¬ 
ern art. The vampire, as we see from the replay from Geraldine’s point 
of view in the Conclusion to Part I, has been watching all along, and 
most evilly, she makes the defeated mother watch the rape of her own 
daughter. The thousand hungry eyes of daemonic nature wait in the 
forest of the night. 

Christabel is a pornographic parable of western sex and power. It 
is the English Faust Domination and seduction are at the center of 
western knowing. Coleridge’s self-immolating male heroines descend 
through Poe and Dostoyevsky to Kafka, whose crucified cockroach is a 
comic version of mute Christabel. Defloration in Christabel is Words¬ 
worth despoiled, his happy flowering fields stripped to reveal nature’s 
brute chthonian substratum. Christabel shows the conflict, hostility, and 
ambivalence in love and poetry. It rebukes the liberal idealizers of 
emotion. Coleridge’s lifelong desire to “finish” the poem was miscon¬ 
ceived. His additions to it, like the nervous marginalia of The Ancient 
Mariner, are a form of self-thwarting, another stammering. They are a 
blatant deflection of the poem’s authentic inspiration, where the vam¬ 
pire has an authoritarian glamour and supernatural self-assurance. 
Geraldine is the daemonic spirit of archaic night, and in Coleridge’s 
original and truer conception, her power has no beginning and no end. 

Speed and Space 


The second generation of English Romantic poets inher¬ 
ited the achievement of the first. Byron, Shelley, and Keats read and 
absorbed Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poems and gave them new form. 
The younger men created the myth of the doomed Romantic artist. All 
three went into exile and died young, in pagan Italy and Greece. Pub¬ 
licity and fashion made them sex-heroes of European high society: they 
were real-life sexual personae, as Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge 
were not. The poems of Byron, Shelley, and Keats are theatrical gestures 
of self-definition. The first Romantic generation released the psychic 
energy in which the second swam and sometimes drowned. Achieving 
freedom is one problem, surviving freedom another. The early deaths of 
Byron, Shelley, and Keats demonstrate the intolerable pressures in the 
Romantic and liberal world-view. Blake and Wordsworth wanted iden¬ 
tity without personality: but personality is ultimate western reality. By¬ 
ron, Shelley, and Keats had a love-hate relationship with personality, 
their own and others’. 

Lord Byron makes Romantic incest stunningly explicit. I see Manfred 
(1817) as a cross-fertilization of Goethe’s Faust with Wordsworth’s 
Tintem Abbey : Byron’s passionate hero is tormented by guilt for some 
mysterious crime. He is obsessed with his dead sister Astarte, his twin in 
eyes, face, and voice. Byron relishes sexual criminality. Forbidden love 
makes his characters superhuman. Rejecting all social relationships, 
Manfred seeks only himself in sexually transmuted form. Wordsworth’s 
sister allows him to remain alone, sex-free, but Astarte (Phoenician 
Venus) lures Manfred into the vertigo of sex. 

The sister-spirit appears in Manfred at exactly the point where she 
materializes in Tintem Abbey. Astarte died in Manfred’s tower when 


Speed and Space 


her heart “wither’d” while gazing on his. She has no tomb. What 
happened? Where is she? Manfred’s western lust for knowledge anni¬ 
hilates his sister, like Faust with Gretchen. Oscar Wilde reimagines the 
scene in the climax of The Picture of Dorian Gray, ; where two doubles, a 
man and his portrait, confront each other in a locked attic room. The 
man is found dead, hideously “withered”—Byron’s word. 1 Astarte, 
gazing at her brother’s heart as if into a mirror, dies of daemonic 
narcissism. Brother and sister trespass the borderlines of western iden¬ 
tity and exchange personality. Manfred merges too fiercely with his 
sister. He assimilates her. How else explain the disappearance of her 

Manfred’s union with his sister is a solipsistic sex-experiment that 
fails. His restlessness and remorse are symptoms of his engorgement by 
her. Like Thyestes, Manfred has eaten his own flesh; like Kronos, he 
must vomit it out. Because real sexual relations have occurred between 
Manfred and his double, the physical world becomes intolerable to him. 
Byron’s poem is surrealistically expanded in Poe’s The Fall of the House 
of Usher, where the sister, entombed in the skull-like house, returns as a 
bloody apparition to stalk her hysterical brother. In Byron, the sister- 
spirit’s materialization promises psychic relief. Manfred appeals to her 
to speak, so she can regain her autonomy and stay externalized. But she 
only prophesies her brother’s death and disappears. I say sister collapses 
back into brother, renewing his sufferings. 

In Tintem Abbey, Wordsworth’s sister does not need to speak. She is 
the anima in correct relation to the poet. The intercourse of brother and 
sister is spiritual, not physical. In Manfred, fraternal intercourse is 
violent and voracious. Blood is shed, which Manfred hallucinates on a 
wine cup. He has ruptured his sister’s virginity. The blood-rimmed cup 
from which he cannot drink is a nightmare vision of the locus of 
violation. It is also his bloody mind and bloody tongue, thinking and 
speaking against nature. 

Like Coleridge’s Christabel, Manfred centers on a ritual sex act defy¬ 
ing social and moral law. In the poem’s pagan cult of self-worship, 
matrimony, communion, and last rites are simultaneous. The ritual 
victim is tom by the phallic knife and her flesh consumed. Astarte is 
tombless because she has been perversely absorbed, body and soul, by 
her brother. As in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, Manfred is tormented by 
the internal presence of another being, illegitimately enwombed like a 
daemonic fetus. Manfred is the Romantic solipsist who has devoured 
the universe, but it sickens within him. Amputation or self-gorging? 
Kleist’s Achilles makes one choice, Byron’s Manfred another. The self is 



out of sync with the object-world, which floods in or cruelly withdraws, 
marooning Wordsworth’s puckered solitaries. In Manfred Byron makes 
illicit sex the lists of combat. Romantic sexual personae scratch and 
claw in attraction and repulsion. 

Rumor said Byron committed incest with his half-sister, Augusta 
Leigh. True or false, the story added to his fame. Incest obsessively 
recurs in Byron’s poems. Cain turns the issue into legal conundrum. 
God allows incest for mankind’s second generation, who must marry 
their siblings. The poem dwells on the mutual love of Cain and his twin 
sister, incredulous at the prohibition of fraternal sexuality to their own 
children. In “Parisina,” the Phaedra-like incest is between wife and 
stepson, an exception to Byron’s favorite brother-sister pattern. Orig¬ 
inally, Byron’s central characters in “The Bride of Abydos” were brother 
and sister in love. In the final version, they are first cousins. But their 
infatuation dates from childhood, and the girl still believes the boy her 
brother when, feverishly kissing him, she rejects an arranged marriage. 
Byron says, “Great is their love who love in sin and fear” (“Heaven and 
Earth”). Incest is sexual dissent. Its value is in impurity. Byron would 
spurn Blakean innocence. He takes the Sadean approach to sex and 
psyche: make a line, so I can cross it. Unlike Blake or Wordsworth, 
Byron wants to reinforce the boundaries of self. In incest, libido moves 
out and back, making a uroboros-circle of regression and dynastic 

Romanticism’s feminization of the male persona becomes effem¬ 
inacy in Byron. The unmanly hero of “The Bride of Abydos” is stranded 
among women. Incestuous feeling is incubated in an Oriental haze. 
“The Corsair” introduces seductive Gulnare, to appear transvestite in a 
sequel. Gulnare’s relations with the corsair are like Kleist’s Penthesilea 
with Achilles, a dancelike exchange of strength and weakness. There 
are heroic rescues, then capture, humiliation, and recovery. Byron ritu- 
alistically elaborates each stage of assertion and passivity, making the 
narrative a slow masque of sexual personae. 

Until the end of “Lara,” Byron teasingly implies that the effeminate 
pageboy, Kaled, is homosexually attached to the chieftain Lara. The 
truth outs when Lara is killed and the boy faints. Bystanders reviving 
him loosen his garments and discover Kaled is the woman Gulnare, in 
love with the corsair Lara. Byron’s rippling poetry makes sexual meta¬ 
morphosis happen before our eyes. First we are admiring “the glossy 
tendrils” of a beautiful boy’s “raven hair.” Suddenly, he swoons into 
sensuous passivity. Now we join the voyeuristic marvelling at public 
exposure of a woman’s breasts, as she lies unconscious. Homosexual 


Speed and Space 

and heterosexual responses have been successively induced or extorted 
from the reader. The blink-of-an-eye sex change recalls Spenser’s 
switch of sexual perspective, but Byron retains his woman’s male name 
to prolong her sexual ambiguity. Surely Gautier imitates this scene in 
Mademoiselle deMaupin , when a page is knocked unconscious from his 
horse and his shirt parted to reveal a girl’s “very white bosom.” I think it 
all ends up in National Velvet (1944, from Enid Bagnold’s novel), where 
a fallen jockey, played by the young Elizabeth Taylor, is carried uncon¬ 
scious from the race course. The motif is now safely sanitized: a doctor, 
not titillated passersby, undrapes the succulent bosom. 

“Lara”’s sex games echo Byron’s own. After leaving Cambridge, 
Byron had an affair with a girl whom he dressed as a boy and called his 
brother. G. Wilson Knight suggests Lady Caroline Lamb masqueraded 
as a pageboy to rekindle the poet’s fading passion. 2 Byron probably 
models Kaled’s service to Lord Lara on that of transvestite Viola to 
Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night Byron’s responses are as bisexual as 
Shakespeare’s. He is equally and even simultaneously aroused by an 
effeminate boy and a bold cross-dressing woman. Byron’s last poems 
are addressed to a handsome Greek youth with whom he was unhappily 
infatuated. His early poems to “Thyrza” were inspired by a Cambridge 
choirboy, probably John Edleston. The boy has a female name partly 
because the poems could not have been published otherwise. But this is 
also an example of my principle of sexual metathesis, a shift in gender 
producing a special eroticism. We feel it in Byron’s lascivious delight in 
“Lara” ’s open-air spectacle of sexual unmasking—the topos of de- 
blousing, recreating the mood of the naughty Italian romances purified 
by Shakespeare. 

In Sardanapalus (1821), Byron vies directly with Shakespeare. The 
poem recasts Antony and Cleopatra —with the hero as Antony and 
Cleopatra. In a prefatory note, Byron claims he got the story from 
Diodorus Siculus. The Greek Sardanapalus bore little resemblance to 
the Assyrian king and general, Assurbanipal. Delacroix’s crimson tab¬ 
leau shows Byron’s Sardanapalus amid the decadent conflagration of 
empire. Byron begins his poem as Shakespeare begins his play: a hostile 
bystander scorns the sexual degeneracy of the protagonist, who enters 
for our inspection. In Shakespeare, the cynical commentary is contra¬ 
dicted by Antony and Cleopatra’s love. Byron’s Sardanapalus, however, 
is just as unmanly as foretold. He sweeps onstage crowned with flowers 
and “effeminately dressed,” followed by a train of women and young 
slaves. Sardanapalus is Euripides’ Dionysus with his Maenads—but 
now Dionysus is king. We are in Shakespeare’s Egypt, a liquid realm of 


woman, music, and perfume. Maleness dissolves. The king’s com¬ 
panions include eunuchs, “beings less than women.” Sardanapalus’ 
brother-in-law calls him “the grandson of Semiramis, the man-queen.” 
Who’s the queen, Semiramis or Sardanapalus? Calling his hero a “she- 
king,” a “ she Sardanapalus,” Byron develops an entire character out of 
Antony’s transvestite game. Sardanapalus denies he is a soldier and 
denounces the word and all who identify with it. Byron tries to argue 
that Sardanapalus’ manhood is more comprehensive than the ordinary. 
But morality is not the Romantic strong suit. Byron quickly flits off into 
sexual caprice, his best manner. Sardanapalus’ feminized masculinity is 
far from efficacious. His kingdom is destroyed, and he with it. 

Sardanapalus is an experiment in personae: how far can a male 
protagonist be shifted toward the female extreme without total loss of 
masculinity? The enervation in Sardanapalus is more extreme than 
anything in Antony and Cleopatra, which bursts with Renaissance en¬ 
ergy. In his journal Byron speaks of the delightful “calm nothingness of 
languour” and elsewhere describes a “voluptuous state, / At once. Ely- 
sian and effeminate” (“The Island”). This floating condition sabotages 
Sardanapalus. The king laments the heaviness of objects, as if his 
muscles have atrophied. Sardanapalus is western personality sub¬ 
merged in Dionysian flux. When military crisis forces him into the 
social world, reality seems stubbornly dense. 

Sardanapalus’ most masculine moment is his arming for battle, pre¬ 
figured in Shakespeare when Cleopatra acts as Antony’s arms-bearer. 
Sardanapalus calls for his cuirass, baldric, helmet, spear—and mirror. 
He flings away his helmet because it doesn’t look good. The king of 
Assyria, who should be psyching himself up for battle, seems more like 
a lady trying on hats. Shakespeare’s hero is attended by his lover. In 
Byron, the lover becomes a mirror. Sardanapalus is the complete Ro¬ 
mantic hero, in love with his mirror-image. He is his own audience and 
critic, a projected eye. Byron nullifies Sardanapalus’ manhood with 
feminine narcissism. We saw this pattern in Lewis’ The Monk , where 
each sexual movement immediately swings in the opposite direction. 
Sardanapalus risks his life by fighting bare-headed, apparently because 
he wants to show off “his flowing hair.” This hair belongs to the poet of 
Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” whose sexual ambiguity Byron divines. By¬ 
ron attaches Coleridge’s whole line to the king’s Amazon slave, Myrrha 
(Dante’s incestuous sinner), who strides into battle with “her floating 
hair and flashing eyes.” Poets, unlike critics, sense the sex and deca¬ 
dence in art. 

As a program for androgyny, Sardanapalus is unconvincing. I find the 

Speed and Space 


poem more ominous than does Knight, who praises the “poet-like” 
hero for “joining man’s reason to woman’s emotional depth.” 3 Sar- 
danapalus seems too vain and whimsical to lead a nation, or even 
produce art. The brawling Cleopatra gets more done. The effeminacy of 
Byron’s hero is perverse, not ideal. Sardanapalus > richness of Shake¬ 
spearean reference raises an interesting question. Byron always spoke 
negatively of Shakespeare. Lady Blessington concluded Byron must be 
feigning animosity, since he knew so much Shakespeare by heart. 
Bloom’s anxiety of influence would suggest that Byron owed Shake¬ 
speare too much and was determined to deny it, even to himself. 

In Don Juan (1819-24), his longest and greatest poem, Byron invents 
another sexually unconventional hero. The seducer Don Juan, a Re¬ 
naissance Spaniard, is one of the west’s unique sexual personae. In 
contrast to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Byron’s Don Juan is smaller, shyer, 
more “feminine.” He is “a most beauteous boy,” “slight and slim, / 
Blushing and beardless,” perfect as “one of the seraphim” (VIII.52; 
IX.53, 47). Juan is partly Byron and partly what Byron likes in boys. 
Knight, Frye, and Bloom comment on the hero’s sexual passivity toward 
dominant women. 4 When Juan is sold as a slave in Constantinople, a 
eunuch forces him into female clothing, supplemented by makeup and 
judicious tweezing. Juan has caught the sultana’s eye. By transvestism 
he can be smuggled into the harem for her pleasure. Byron’s sensual, 
self-enclosed harem world is like Blake’s rose, femaleness multiplied 
and condensed in a small humid circle. 

The sultana Gulbeyaz is one of Romanticism’s most potent women. 
Don Juan continues Sardanapalus' maneuvering of an effeminate male 
along the sexual spectrum. Juan’s tenuous manhood is near-obliterated 
by female drag. Now Byron shoves him next to an Amazon dominatrix. 
Juan in petticoats is a trembling pawn upon whom the raging queen 
bears down. Gulbeyaz is the Cleopatra missing from Sardanapalus. She 
is the androgyne as virago, luxuriously female in body but harshly male 
in spirit. Gulbeyaz has Cleopatra’s vigorous duality: her “large eyes” 
show “half-voluptuousness and half-command.” She is “imperial, or 
imperious,” with a haughty smile of “self-will.” Her eyes “flash’d al¬ 
ways fire,” blending “passion and power” (V.108, 110—11, 134, 116). 
Gulbeyaz wears a male poniard at her waist. Byron’s sultana will end 
up as a smouldering Spanish marquise in Balzac’s The Girl with the 
Golden Eyes , where that poniard is drawn and dreadfully used. 

Gulbeyaz’s entrance into the poem overwhelms Don Juan’s residual 
masculinity. Introduced as a girl to sultan and harem, he blushes and 
shakes. Byron chooses not to defend his hero’s virility and mischie- 



vously absents himself to take the sexually external point of view. Poor 
Juan is now simply “she” and “her.” Even Spenser, after briefing the 
reader, allows his transvestites their proper pronoun. In the next canto, 
Byron allows “he” intermittent return. But it is rudely jostled by the 
harem’s unflagging attention to the newcomer: “Her shape, her hair, 
her air, her everything” (VI.35). Gossip, admiration, envy: Juan’s female 
alter ego is fixed by and projected to a captive audience. Asked his 
name, Juan replies “Juanna.” And Juanna he is called for the rest of the 
Turkish episode, even by Byron himself. This sex transformation of his 
own name is a sign of Juan’s developing sexual complicity, like Cole¬ 
ridge’s Christabel lifting the vampire over the threshold. Apologizing 
for calling his hero Juanna, Byron wantonly stresses the sexual equivo¬ 
cal: “I say her because, / The gender still was epicene” (58). Even at his 
most perverse, Spenser is never this coy. Byron is flirting with the reader, 
something new in literature. 

Logically, a young man spirited into a harem, like a fox in a hen¬ 
house, should soon profit from his access to, as Byron puts it, “a thou¬ 
sand bosoms there / Beating for love” (26). But this is a Romantic and 
not a Renaissance poem, and in a Romantic poem, as should now be 
clear, virility is granted no privileges. Juan becomes the object of desire 
not because he is male but because he is thought female. The harem 
women fight over who is to sleep with Juanna, and more than sleep is on 
their minds: “Lolah’s eyes sparkled at the proposition” (82). Gulbeyaz is 
included in this steamy stuff. The sultan is “always so polite” as to 
announce his conjugal visits in advance, “especially at night.” Since the 
harem is marked by “the absence of all men,” the sultan would presum¬ 
ably not be surprised to find Gulbeyaz in bed with her own women 
(V.146; VI.32) Don Juan's lesbian innuendos frustrate conventional 
sexual expectation. How does one defeat the virility of a man at happy 
liberty in a harem? The Romantic poem, with cross-sexual virtuosity, 
blithely replies: why, by turning him into a transvestite and making him 
the object of lesbian lust! 

The rest of Don Juan is a series of sexcapades across Asia and Europe. 
The unfinished poem ends in female transvestism, a scene probably 
inspired by The Monk: Juan’s bedchamber is invaded by a ghostly, 
hooded friar, whom the closing words reveal to be a “voluptuous” 
woman. The best things in Don Juan take place in the Near East, which 
Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798 had made a subject of Euro¬ 
pean interest. Knight says “Byron is saturated in oriental sympathies.” 5 
Byron’s Orient, like Shakespeare’s, is an emotionally expansive realm 
liquefying European sexual personae. Genders proliferate: Byron calls 


Speed and Space 

eunuchs and castrati “the third sex.” We cannot comprehend the myste¬ 
ries of love, he says, until we imitate “wise Tiresias” and sample “the 
severed sexes.” Don Juan's teeming eunuchs—the sultan’s eunuch train 
is “a quarter of a mile” long—are extreme versions of its androgynous 
hero. Transvestite Juan subject to Gulbeyaz is like a castrate priest of 
Cybele. The Byronic Orient is matriarchal. Don Juan's seraglio, a “laby¬ 
rinth of females,” is a drowsy Spenserian bower, the womb-tomb of the 
male will. As in Antony and Cleopatra, the Orient also stands for liber¬ 
ated imagination. It is the anarchic unconscious, a dream-world of 
unstable sex and identity where objects cannot hold their Apollonian 

Don Juan's free and easy style is difficult to analyze. Style reflects 
poet. Spengler says western history demands “contrapuntally strong 
accents—wars or big personalities—at the decisive points.” 6 The huge 
influence of Byron’s personality on the nineteenth century is still in¬ 
completely assessed. His early poems of brooding defiance, like Cain 
and Manfred, conform to the popular image of Byronism, but Don Juan 
actually captures the poet’s essential spirit. Don Juan is emotionally 
various and comprehensive. Bloom says, “The last word in a discussion 
of Don Juan ought not to be ‘irony’ but ‘mobility’, one of Byron’s favorite 
terms.” 7 Byron defined mobility as “an excessive susceptibility of imme¬ 
diate impressions.” The mobile male is receptive and half-feminine. I 
myself hit upon “mobility” to describe the psychic volatility of Shake¬ 
speare’s boys and women, whom his plays class with lovers, lunatics, 
and poets. The many moods of Don Juan's omniscient narrator make 
him a Mercurius of multiple personae. The poem explores the emo¬ 
tional tonalities available to a poetic voice speaking for itself and not 
through projected characters. It is analogous to Chopin’s development 
of the lyric potential of the piano. In Don Juan Byron takes himself for 
subject nearly as forthrightly as Wordsworth does in The Prelude . 

Byron’s dedication to Don Juan attacks Wordsworth, Coleridge, and 
Southey for “a narrowness . . . which makes me wish you’d change your 
lakes for ocean.” A lake is enclosed and trapped by the conventional and 
known. No one point of view can do justice to ocean, vast and meta- 
morphic. Byronic energy overflows Wordsworthian decorum. Impa¬ 
tiently, Byron overlooks the sexual ambivalences in Wordsworth and 
daemonic Coleridge. He charges them with parochialism, with dam¬ 
ming up the waters of emotion in stagnant spiritual ponds. The English 
are traditionally a seafaring people. Their location on an island amidst a 
turbulent northern ocean contributed to the outpouring poetic vitality of 



the English Renaissance. By the early nineteenth century, the psychic 
fluidity of Shakespeare’s England was long gone. Like Shelley, Byron, 
the most mobile of poets, fled the resentments of a closed society. The 
English had become emotionally and sexually landlocked. Frazer links 
ancient Egypt’s stability and conservatism to its desert geography. Agri¬ 
culture’s “monotonous routine” gives the farmer “a settled phlegmatic 
habit of mind very different from the mobility, the alertness, the pliabil¬ 
ity of character which the hazards and uncertainties of commerce and 
the sea foster in the merchant and the sailor,” with their “mercurial 
spirit.” 8 In Don Juan, Byron takes English imagination back to sea. As 
Juan is tossed and turned by adventure, the narrator’s shifting voice 
recreates the ceaseless sea change of sex and emotion. 

Like Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which made Byron famous, Don 
Juan is structured by the archetypal journey theme. But Don Juan's 
journeying has speed. Alvin Reman speaks of an “onward rush” in the 
poem, “a vital forceful onward movement.” 9 From locomotive to jet 
plane, speed has transformed modem life. The Renaissance reeled 
from its sudden expansion of space, as the known world doubled and 
tripled. Speed is western domination of space, a linear track of the 
aggressive will. Modem speed alters perception. As late as 1910, E. M. 
Forster’s heroine in Howards End resists the new speed of the motorcar, 
which makes her lose “all sense of space.” Mr. Wilcox sings out, 
“There’s a pretty church—oh, you aren’t sharp enough.” Margaret’s 
premodem eye moves sluggishly: “She looked at the scenery. It heaved 
and merged like porridge. Presently it congealed. They had arrived.” 10 
Speed melts the object-world without remaking it. Revolutionary Byron 
senses an imminent change in the nature of space, which he did not live 
to see. Don Juan marks the first appearance in art of modem speed. 

Critics sometimes speak of the “swiftness” of Shelley’s poetry. But 
Shelley’s movement is upward. He seeks rhapsodic exaltation (exaltare 
means “to lift up”). Byron is never exalted. His movement is secular and 
vehicular. Byron’s space was created by the Renaissance Age of Discov¬ 
ery and measured by the Enlightenment. Speaking of Milton, Don 
Cameron Allen says Judeo-Christianity urges man “to abandon the 
horizontal movement of human history for the vertical motion of the 
spiritual life.” 11 Shelley is spiritual verticality, Byron earthly horizon- 
tality. Shelley is always subverting horizontals: the Witch of Atlas’ boat 
defies gravity and sails upstream, or the procession of “The Triumph of 
Time” shows life as a leaden line of slaves. Shelley’s objects, as we shall 
see, are weightless and porous, penetrated by vision. Byron’s concrete 

Speed and Space 


objects are firmly fixed in space and time. Shelley’s imagination moves, 
but what moves in Byron is the body Byron is a Greek athlete, challeng¬ 
ing and surpassing. Objects are his counters and stepping stones. 

Shelley’s and Byron’s speed are energized by different principles of 
sex-transcendance. Don Juan's speed is a skimming, like Raphael’s 
Galatea flying in her chariot across the sea. But Galatea is drawn by 
porpoises. Byron’s speed is self-motivating. All self-motivating speed is 
hermaphroditic—in angels, Vergil’s Camilla, or Giambologna’s Mer¬ 
cury. Pope’s Camilla “skims along the Main” (An Essay on Criticism, 
373). Byron actually compares the dancing Don Juan to Vergil’s Ama¬ 
zon: “Like swift Camilla, he scarce skimm’d the ground” (XIV.39). Don 
Juan the character and Don Juan the poem are world-skimmers. The 
skimming is in both style and content. Byron’s poetry is not “finished,” 
that is, finely crafted and polished. Sir Walter Scott saw in Byron “the 
careless and negligent ease of a man of quality.” Calling him “slovenly, 
slipshod,” Matthew Arnold rebuked Byron for “negligence” and “want 
of art, in his workmanship as a poet.” 12 But this slapdash freedom gives 
Byron his relentless forward propulsion. Since the lines are not crisply 
formed, each tips into the next with breathless haste. Shakespeare’s 
spilling lines are weightier, his diction craggier. I said vision in Cole¬ 
ridge and Poe often overpowers language, leaving it rude or weak: 
words run hot and cold, gorgeous splotches followed by shabby scrab¬ 
ble. But Byron’s poetry has evenness of texture, a liquid fluency. Byron 
greatly admired the Augustan poets, but though his aristocratic satire is 
Augustan, his style is not. There is no braking midline caesura, nor is 
there Pope’s massy orotundity. Byron cultivates a sensation of linearity. 
His verse is like a clear, rapid stream. Byron’s objects have a friendly 
exactitude. His moods and objects are tumbled like smooth pebbles in 
the stream of his poetry. Love and hate, male and female, lobster salad 
and champagne: this is Byron’s object-world in genial rolling flux. All 
come together in his poetry to make us feel we are skimming a surface. 

Poetry began as music, and music began as dance. Shelley’s move¬ 
ments are like those of classical ballet* which takes place in abstract 
space. Ballet ideologically defies gravity. Great male dancers are ap¬ 
plauded for their ability to hover at the crest of their leaps, as if momen¬ 
tarily breaking their tie to earth. Female dancers mutilate their feet to 
remain inhumanly on point, keeping their contact with earth to the 
absolute minimum. The arms extended from the body, a gesture orig¬ 
inating in the Baroque court, suggest wings, contempt for the earth’s 
surface. Ballet is the body rising. Ballet is ceremonial and hieratic. Its 
disdain for the commonplace material world is the source of its author- 



ity and glamour. Ballet is Apollonian. Martha Graham invented or 
rather reinvented chthonian dance. Modem dance is primitivistic and 
pelvic. It slaps bare feet on mother earth and contracts with her spasms. 
The dance of Byron’s poetry is neither Apollonian nor chthonian. Byron 
is attuned neither to sky nor to earth’s bowels. He skims earth’s surface, 
midway between realms. Don Juan's Byronic style is found in only one 
dancer: Fred Astaire. Astaire’s supple dancing is a silvery gliding along 
hard polished surfaces. There is no balletic aspiration in Astaire. He is 
the here and now, a sophisticate moving in cosmopolitan space. Even 
when springing up on chairs or climbing the walls, Astaire is exploring 
the dimensions of our common life. Rudolf Nureyev is a haughty Lu¬ 
cifer shut out from heaven, which he tries to reach in angry leaps. 
Nureyev is early Byron, tense and defiant. Astaire (and his admirer, 
Mikhail Baryshnikov) is late Byron. Astaire is a suave reed bending to 
the wind. He has Byron’s “ease,” the well-bred manners and gentle 
smiling irony. Astaire is as elegantly elongated as Giambologna’s Mer¬ 
cury. With his smooth head and slim body, he is ageless and an¬ 
drogynous. He is a gracious host or guide, like Milton’s Raphael, “the 
sociable Spirit” or “affable Arch-angel.” Astaire’s fluid grace is Byron’s 
mobility, skimming across the world. 

Byron knew both his speed and his space. His dedication to Don Juan 
proclaims to rival poets that, “wandering with pedestrian Muses,” he 
will not contend with them “on the winged steed.” He is not Nureyev, 
making Pegasus-like skyward leaps, but Astaire, spiralling across the 
earth’s dance floor with merry carnal Muses (Ginger Rogers, Rita Hay¬ 
worth). An eternal “wandering” or surface-skimming: like all pica¬ 
resque works, Byron’s travel poems have no necessary ending and could 
go on and on. I call Don Juan's lightness and quickness breeziness. A 
connection to Camilla: Jackson Knight says the idea of a fleet figure 
running atop the grain stalks may have originated in Volscian belief in 
“the presence of some spirit of the com.” 13 So the meadows’ wavelike 
motion is the wind’s invisible steps. The breeziness of Don Juan is the 
freshness of a spring breeze, a new spirit entering and aerating history. 
The breeze emanating from Byron—literally, his emanation—is the 
spirit of youth, which was to have enormous impact upon European and 
American culture. Rousseau invented the modem cult of childhood; 
Goethe popularized Rousseau’s moody adolescent. But Byron created 
the glamourous sexy youth of brash, defiant energy, the new embodied 
in a charismatic sexual persona. Hence Byron senses the dawn of the 
age of speed. Youth is swiftness in emotionally transient form. Tran¬ 
sience, from the Latin transeo , contains the ideas both of travel and of 

Speed and Space 


the short-lived. Byron, portrayed by Goethe as the androgynous, self- 
thwarted Euphorion, died in 1824. The first passenger locomotive ap¬ 
peared in 1825. Byron’s spirit seems to have transmigrated into the 
engine of speed. 

Surveys show that two advertising words rivet our attention: “free” 
and “new.” We still live in the age of Romanticism. When novelty is 
worshipped, nothing can last. Byronic youth-culture flourishes in rock 
music, the ubiquitous American art form. Don Juan's emotional and 
poetic style is replicated in a classic American experience: driving flat- 
out on a highway, radio blaring. Driving is the American sublime, for 
which there is no perfect parallel in Europe. Ten miles outside any 
American city, the frontier is wide open. Our long, straight super¬ 
highways crisscross vast space. Mercury and Camilla’s self-motivating 
speed: the modern automobile, plentifully panelled with glass, is so 
quick, smooth, and discreet, it seems an extension of the body. To 
traverse or skim the American landscape in such a vehicle is to feel the 
speed and aerated space of Don Juan. Rock music pulsing on the radio 
is the car’s heartbeat. European radio stations are few and mostly state- 
controlled. But American radio-bands teem with music and voices, like 
the many moods of Byron’s poem. Driving through upstate New York, 
horizontally slashed by six hours of straight-as-the-crow-flies Thruway, 
one hears music from Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, as distant as 
Italy is from England. Twirling the radio dial while travelling the open 
road, the American driver flies along on a continuous surface of music, 
with a sublime sense of huge space surveyed and subsumed. 

Rock music is normally a darkly daemonic mode. The Rolling 
Stones, the greatest rock band, are heirs of stormy Coleridge. But rock 
has an Apollonian daylight style as well, a combination of sun and 
speed: the Beach Boys. Don Juan and the Beach Boys combine youth, 
androgyny, aeration, and speed. Lillian Roxon calls the Beach Boys’ 
first album “a celebration of airiness and speed, speed on the water or 
the road.” 14 The romance of motion survives in the Beach Boys’ soaring 
harmonies and chugging sound, like the chuff-chuff-chuff of a locomo¬ 
tive or steamboat. The Beach Boys made the California surfer a new 
American archetype, like the cowboy. Surfing, of course, is skimming in 
its purest form. 

The Beach Boys use a falsetto lead voice set against a boyish chorale; 
their sound is effeminate and yet enthusiastically heterosexual, as in the 
immortal “California Girls.” We find the same odd combination in By¬ 
ron. Byron may have been partly or even primarily homosexual, but his 
poetry affects a distinctive eroticism of effeminate heterosexuality. The 



Beach Boys’ seraphic boy voice gives an unexpected beauty and re¬ 
ligiosity to their trivial high-school themes. The tone is Byronic: sympa¬ 
thy and satire, without cynicism. In their exuberance, hedonism, and 
mannered irrelevance, the Beach Boys epitomize the self-sustaining 
and annoyingly self-congratulatory modem youth culture that Byron 
began. The American teenager in a souped-up car bursts the confines of 
adult space. 

Why did Byron’s poetry turn to skimming? Bernard Blackstone re¬ 
marks, “We know how much Byron objected to seeing his wife eating, 
and while this may have something to do with his own horror of obesity 
and recollections of his mother’s gormandising, there were probably 
moments at which Byron saw himself as an homunculus between the 
steady munch, munch of Annabella’s upper and lower jaws.” 15 Byron 
had a weight problem and struggled to keep thin, even by starving 
himself. Fat is femaleness, nature’s abundance, symbolized in the bulg¬ 
ing Venus of Willendorf. Femaleness, I argued, is primitive and archaic, 
while femininity is social and aesthetic. Byron courts femininity but 
flees femaleness. His fear of fat is his fear of engorgement by mother 
and wife. Woman gets under his skin. Skimming is keeping the fat off, 
in soup or milk. Don Juan’s skimming is a defense mechanism, a 
compromise between earth’s primitive chthonianism and sky’s repres¬ 
sive Apollonianism. Byron keeps moving, reclaiming space from 
mother nature. Byron’s Sardanapalus eliminates and supplants Cleo¬ 
patra because Byron fears the femme fatale and female stasis. Even 
fierce Gulbeyaz is trapped in a male world, the sultan’s prisoner. 

Byron loved water and was so expert a swimmer that he wondered if 
he had been a merman in a previous life. He chose a mermaid for his 
carriage crest. Is the mermaid androgynous Byron—or archetypal 
woman closed to penetration? Swimming was club-footed Byron’s 
freest motion. One of his feats was swimming the Hellespont: Byron 
honored liquidity but sought to dominate it, athletically. As much as 
Wordsworth, he wanted nature without chthonian danger. The clarity 
of Byron’s late style is a denial of the murk of woman and water. Female 
fluids are opaque, resistant; fat, the wateriest part of our body, is mother 
nature’s grip on the human will. Like Blake, Byron refuses to yield to 
Jehovah or Cybele. “Run, run, run,” say a dozen classic rock songs. To 
grow, a plant must put down roots. So keep young and die. Byron’s 
restless animal motion defeats his female vegetable flesh. Don Juan 
does not stop because Byron cannot stop. 

A contemporary spoke of Byron’s “magical influence” on people. 
Mary Shelley said of him, “There was something enchanting in his 


Speed and Space 

34. Thomas Phillips, Lord Byron, 1814. 

manner, his voice, his smile—a fascination in them.” 16 Byron had pure 
charisma, a power of personality divorced from the conceptual or moral. 
Charisma is electromagnetism, a scintillating fusion of masculine and 
feminine. Lady Blessington said Byron’s “voice and accent are pecu¬ 
liarly agreeable, but effeminate.” His friend Moore saw “a feminine cast 
of character” in “his caprices, fits of weeping, sudden affections and 
dislikes.” 17 Byron belongs to the category of androgyne I invented for 
Michelangelo’s Giuliano de'Medici: Epicoene, or the man of beauty, an 
athlete of alabaster skin. Jane Porter found Byron’s complexion “softly 
brilliant,” with a “moonlight paleness.” Lady Blessington called his 
face “peculiarly pale,” set off by curling hair of “very dark brown”: “He 



35. Elvis Presley in the film 
Speedway ; 1968. 

uses a good deal of oil in it, which makes it look still darker.” 18 White 
skin, dark oiled hair: Elvis Presley. In homage to singer Roy Orbison, 
Presley dyed his brown-blonde hair black and continued to do so to the 
end, despite friends’ urging to let the natural color return. Presley, a 
myth-maker, understood the essence of his archetypal beauty. 

Byron and Elvis Presley look alike, especially in strong-nosed Greek 
profile (figs. 34 and 35). In Glenarvon , a roman a clef about her affair 
with Byron, Caroline Lamb says of her heroine’s first glimpse of him, 
“The proud curl of the upper lip expressed haughtiness and bitter 
contempt.” 19 Presley’s sneer was so emblematic that he joked about it. 
In a 1968 television special, he twitched his mouth and murmured, to 
audience laughter, “I’ve got something on my lip.” The Romantic cur¬ 
ling lip is aristocratic disdain: Presley is still called “the King,” testi¬ 
mony to the ritual needs of a democratic populace. As revolutionary 
sexual personae, Byron and Presley had early and late styles: brooding 
menace, then urbane magnanimity. Their everyday manners were 
manly and gentle. Presley had a captivating soft-spoken charm. The 
Byronic hero, says Peter Thorslev, is “invariably courteous toward 


Speed and Space 

women.” 20 Byron and Presley were world-shapers, conduits of titanic 
force, yet they were deeply emotional and sentimental in a feminine 

Both had late Orientalizing periods. Byron, drawn to oriental themes, 
went off to fight the Turks in the Greek war of independence and died of 
a mysterious illness at Missolonghi. A portrait shows him in silk turban 
and embroidered Albanian dress. The costume style of Presley’s last 
decade was nearly Mithraic: jewel-encrusted silk jumpsuits, huge stud¬ 
ded belts, rings, chains, sashes, scarves. This resembles Napoleon’s late 
phase, as in Ingres’ portrait of the emperor enthroned in Byzantine 
splendor, weighed down in velvet, ermine, and jewels. Napoleon, By¬ 
ron, and Presley began in simplicity as flaming assertions of youthful 
male will, and all three ended as ornate objets de culte. British legend 
envisions a “westering” of culture: Troy to Rome to London. But there 
is also an eastering of culture. We are far from our historical roots in 
Mesopotamia and Asia Minor; yet again and again, collective emotion 
swelling about a charismatic European personality instinctively returns 
him or her to the east. Elizabeth I also ended as a glittering Byzantine 

Another parallel: Byron and Presley were renowned for athletic vigor, 
yet both suffered chronic ailments that somehow never marred their 
glossy complexions or robust beauty. Both constantly fought off cor¬ 
pulence, Presley losing toward the end. Both died prematurely, Byron at 
thirty-six, Presley at forty-two. Byron’s autopsy revealed an enlarged 
heart, degenerated liver and gall bladder, cerebral inflammation, and 
obliteration of the skull sutures. 21 Presley suffered an enlarged heart 
and degenerated colon and liver. In both cases, tremendous physical 
energy was oddly fused with internal disorder, a revolt of the organism. 
Presley’s drugs were symptom, not cause. Psychogenetically, Byron and 
Presley practiced the secret art of feminine self-impairment. 

Discussing Michelangelo’s Giuliano , I noted the statue’s swanlike 
neck, strangely contrasting with the massive knees and calves. Countess 
Albrizzi said of Byron, “His neck, which he was in the habit of keeping 
uncovered as much as the usages of society permitted, seemed to have 
been formed in a mould, and was very white.” (Shelley also appeared 
with “his white throat unfettered.”) Most of Byron’s portraits emphasize 
the neck. Narcissistically turning his feminine neck, the man of beauty 
offers his profile for our admiration. The feminine meaning of an 
exposed neck is plain in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary when Emma flirts 
with her future husband by tossing off a liqueur and, head back, licking 
the bottom of the glass. I find similar provocative body language in 



Lucretius’ Mars, Ingres’ Thetis, Girodet’s Endymion, Kleist’s Achilles, 
George Eliot’s Rosamond, and Tilly Losch as the vain Chinese dancer 
in The Good Earth (1937). One of the hallmarks of Elvis Presley’s late 
Orientalizing period was his architectural stiff standing collar, 
elongating the neck and revealing the throat in a plunging V to the 
chest. In his Las Vegas shows, Presley ritualistically draped scarves 
about his neck and cast them into the audience—self-distribution as 
formulaic neck-remembrance. Do this in memory of me. 

Where does charisma belong? Where should it stay? Byron was full 
of political ideas, which led him to sacrifice his life in the cause of 
liberty. But he was an Alcibiades whose glamour was too intense for his 
own society. England could not tolerate Byron’s presence and con¬ 
vulsively expelled him. Perfect narcissism is fascinating and therefore 
demoralizing. Byron’s narcissism released the archaic and asocial phe¬ 
nomenon of incest. What if Lord Byron had entered English politics? 
We have the precedent of another man of beauty, George Villiers, first 
Duke of Buckingham, favorite of James 1 and Charles I. Wandering 
through the Palazzo Pitti twenty years ago, I was electrified by an ill-lit, 
unmarked portrait of stunning androgynous beauty. It turned out to be 
Rubens’ painting of Buckingham. Playing Buckingham in Richard 
Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1974), Simon Gray is wonderfully made 
up to resemble Rubens’ portrait. David Harris Willson says: 

Buckingham was a seductive young man, with something of the 
allurements of both sexes. He was esteemed one of the handsomest 
men in the whole world. Tall, comely, and beautifully propor¬ 
tioned, he had great physical vigour and skill in bodily sports . . . 
The antiquarian and diarist, D’Ewes, recorded: “I saw everything 
in him full of delicacy and handsome features, yea, his hands and 
face seemed to me especially effeminate and curious.” 22 

As the man of beauty, Buckingham combined athleticism with feminine 
charm. Once again we find the contrast of dark hair and fine complex¬ 
ion. The political consequences of Buckingham’s extraordinary beauty 
were severe and longlasting. Perez Zagorin states: 

He rose to the meridian of power, there to shine in blazing splen¬ 
dour until the knife of an assassin extinguished his light. ... A 
golden shower of wealth and offices descended on him. . . . Buck¬ 
ingham’s domination formed an epoch of critical importance in the 
pre-history of the revolution. It deformed the workings of the 
King’s government and the patronage system. It sowed disaffection 

}6 4 

Speed and Space 

in the Court and was a prime cause of enmity on the political scene. 

It brought the royal regime into hatred and contempt. To the 
favourite’s ascendancy must be ascribed in no small measure the 
decline of the crown’s moral authority—an authority indispensable 
to government which, once lost, can hardly ever be recovered. 

With all his sway over affairs, Buckingham had no real policy or 
extended aims. Unlike his contemporary ministers, Richelieu and 
Olivares, his predominant purpose in the use of power was to 
aggrandize himself and his dependents. 23 

Alcibiades helped bring down the Athenian empire. Buckingham has¬ 
tened England’s regicidal revolution. Excess charisma is dangerous, to 
self and others. 

Byron, the Romantic exile, did England a favor. Energy and beauty 
together are burning, godlike, destructive. Byron created the youth-cult 
that would sweep Elvis Presley to uncomfortable fame. In our affluent 
commercial culture, this man of beauty was able to ignore politics and 
build his empire elsewhere. A ritual function of contemporary popular 
culture: to parallel and purify government. The modem charismatic 
personality has access to movies, television, and music, with their enor¬ 
mous reach. Mass media act as a barrier protecting politics, which 
would otherwise be unbalanced by the entrance of men of epochal 
narcissistic glamour. Today’s Byronic man of beauty is a Presley who 
dominates the imagination, not a Buckingham who disorders a state. 

Light and Heat 

Shelley and Keats 

Fathers earn and sons spend. Entrepreneurs in business 
or art fight their way to identity, amassing fortunes that they leave to 
their heirs. The son, having it all, has nothing to press against, except 
the father. So many sons of famous fathers are alcoholics, drug addicts, 
dilettantes. The first generation of Romantic poets forcefully created 
themselves out of the declining eighteenth century. Their personalities 
were conflicted and contradictory, grand even in disarray. The second 
generation, beginning on the assumptions of the first, was breezier but 
lacked stamina. Byron, Shelley, and Keats lyricize reality. Lyric, a Greek 
genre, is based on simple parallelism between nature and emotion. In 
antiquity, lyric was supplemented by the other genres, which taken as a 
whole give a complete picture of the universe. Lyric cannot stand alone 
as a genre. Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton subordinated lyric 
to larger statements. So did Blake and Wordsworth, and so did Cole¬ 
ridge, who turned to philosophy to escape his lyric agonies. Byron, 
Shelley, and Keats expanded the lyric to extraordinary length. But 
length did not protect them from the torment implicit in lyric emotion, 
when unframed by stable social structure. All three fled south, as if to 
recharge lyric at its source. The first Romantic to make lyric survive the 
northern winter was Emily Dickinson—and that was because she 
stayed put and used Spenser and Blake to confront nature’s sadism. The 
second Romantic generation tried to argue away the daemonism which 
the first had uncovered in sex and nature. 

Imagination for Shelley is “the principle of synthesis,” uniting “all 
irreconcilable things.” 1 Like Coleridge, he extends the synthesis of 
contraries to sexual personae. He is the first Romantic to use the overt 
Hermaphrodite positively. In the elegy Adonais (1821), Shelley portrays 


Light and Heat 

Keats as a half-feminine Adonis, treacherously slain. His preface at¬ 
tributes Keats’s tubercular death to “the savage criticism” of “Endy- 
mion,” Keats’s version of the myth of beautiful youth and moon- 
goddess. “These wretched men” of the Quarterly Review had “the most 
violent effect on his susceptible mind.” Later rave reviews “were inef¬ 
fectual to heal the wound thus wantonly inflicted.” Adonis’ goring by 
the boar’s tusk becomes a poet’s goring by hostile critics. The poet as 
beautiful boy ritually slain by society recalls Thomas Chatterton, men¬ 
tioned in Adonais. Chatterton, a frustrated poet who killed himself at 
seventeen in 1770, became a Romantic archetype of tragic youth. 
Shelley’s unscrupulous critics are like Wordsworth’s sneering “selfish 
men.” Society is controlled by virile males who abuse the feminine poet. 
Shelley says “the poisoned shaft” of “their insults and their slanders” is 
fatal when landing on a heart “like Keats’s composed of more penetra¬ 
ble stuff.” The arrow is a tusk, the heart a groin. Susceptible Keats is 
penetrable as a woman. Shelley is remembering Shakespeare’s sado¬ 
masochistic eroticism in Venus and Adonis: “Nuzzling in his flank, the 
loving swine / Sheathed unaware the tusk in his soft groin” (115-16). 
Critics, of course, are unloving swine. 

For Shelley and all Romantics except Blake, the poet is a passive suf¬ 
ferer. Shelley’s major use of the theme is in Prometheus Unbound, where 
youthful Prometheus says “Pain is my element” (I.477). The Prome¬ 
thean poet steals the divine fire of imagination, but in Romantic terms, 
his punishment is for any attempt at assertive action. The poem opens 
on the sadomasochistic spectacle of Prometheus helplessly pinned 
down, pierced by ice spears and the beak of a marauding bird. All male 
artists have Keats’s penetrable body and heart. Like Blake’s God Creat¬ 
ing Adam, Prometheus Unbound is male sex war. The oppressor is virile 
and therefore unjust. Shelley revises classical myth and Paradise Lost by 
driving Jupiter from heaven. As “the supreme Tyrant” sinks, his power 
drains away. The vengeful poet castrates in turn. 

Shelley’s “Ozymandias” charts another male fall. Pharaoh, probably 
Rameses II, noisily pumps himself up but is defeated by time. Again, 
tyranny and virility “sneer.” The artist, a nobody, sees all. Ozymandias’ 
“shattered visage” is the western male persona, riven with cracks. The 
poem is an iconoclasm, a breaking of the image. Patient, persistent 
nature topples the male idol of sex and politics. Political power is built 
on sand, but art lasts. How true of Rameses II: we remember him only 
through Abu Simbel, the Book of Exodus, and The Ten Command¬ 
ments , where he is brilliantly played by Yul Brynner. Nature’s revenge: 
today Rameses II makes the news as a tiny mummy infested by parasites 

Shelley and Keats 


and shipped air freight to Paris for gas treatment. In Shelley’s sonnet, 
gas is Pharaoh’s problem. 

The two main figures of The Witch of Atlas (1820) are androgynes. 
The witch is bom fully potent in a “chamber of gray rock.” Like Athena, 
she has no childhood; like Circe, she is a metamorphosist and daughter 
of the Sun. The witch represents the magic of art. Her birthplace, “the 
enwombed rocks,” are Wordsworth’s chthonian caverns of the mind. 
She is a secretion, an earth-thought. Shelley echoes “Kubla Khan,” 
turning Coleridge’s ostracized poet into a Spenserian femme fatale. But 
there is no Spenserian sex. The witch is “a sexless bee” (Pindar’s 
Delphic oracle), “a lovely lady garmented in light.” One of Shelley’s 
favorite strategies is to use Apollonian light to temper or sweeten chtho¬ 
nian mysteries. In its dynamics of art-making, The Witch of Atlas denies 
that creation must come out of destruction. 

The clairvoyant witch enters human consciousness, watching the 
movements of social and erotic life. “Her own thoughts were each a 
minister”: she has an inner male court. Self-populated, she needs no 
mate or friend. She shows emotion only once, when she weeps at the 
futility of cultivating sea-nymphs or tree-spirits, since they are mortal 
and she is not. Leaving her mountain solitude for some sightseeing, the 
witch invents a mechanical companion to power her spirit-boat. Out of 
“fire and snow” she makes Hermaphroditus, “a sexless thing” with the 
“grace” of both genders. It has “gentleness and strength,” a swelling 
bosom and angel’s wings. Its fire and snow belong to Spenser’s False 
Florimell, a male spirit skilled in female impersonation. The Her¬ 
maphrodite breaks natural law by propelling the boat upstream. As an 
art work, it personifies its own text, a poem-within-a-poem. 

The sexless witch models her creature on herself. I see the Her¬ 
maphrodite as a self-portrait, an extrapolation of her sexual duality. Its 
fabrication is a Romantic materialization of the double, like those in 
Wordsworth’s Tintem Abbey and Byron’s Manfred ,. In Wordsworth, the 
double is silent but alert. In Byron, the double hesitates but finally 
speaks. In Shelley, the double is mute and even autistic. It lies with 
“unawakened eyes” in the boat, “busy dreams” playing over its face. It 
smiles, cries, sighs, murmurs to itself. Arguing against Knight’s view 
that the Hermaphrodite is “the evolutionary or transcendental goal of 
mankind,” Bloom rightly says it is “only a robot.” 2 The Hermaphrodite 
is comatose, catatonic. Like Goethe’s Homunculus, it is the androgyne 
as nineteenth-century manufactured object. 

I call this type of torpid, glacial androgyne the android, a futuristic 
entity. The classic modem android was the high-fashion model of the 


Light and Heat 

Fifties to Seventies, with her haughty masklike face. Anthony Burgess 
reports a friend’s rendezvous with “the ideal mannequin, all legs and no 
breasts”: “It was like going to bed with a bicycle.” 3 David Bowie used 
the mannequin style in his transvestite period, when his skull-like face 
seemed coldly artificial. An android female, reviled by D. H. Lawrence, 
appeared in the Twenties. Parker Tyler calls studio-era stars like Garbo 
“somnambules.” 4 I class as affectless movie zombies Gene Tierney in 
Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Joan Greenwood in The Importance of 
Being Earnest (1952), Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958), and Catherine 
Deneuve in Repulsion (1965) and Belle de Jour (1966). Emotional life¬ 
lessness is psychological abstraction, a masculine impersonality. Other 
somnambulistic androids are Wilde’s entranced, robotlike Salome and 
Lawrence’s slow-moving, “scarcely conscious” Hermione Roddice, 
with her “drugged” face. 5 

The hermaphroditic manufactured object predates the Industrial 
Revolution. Vergil calls the Trojan Horse a “womb” filled with soldiers, 
a “fatal machine pregnant with arms.” Built with the “divine art” of 
androgynous Athena, the Trojan Horse is hermaphroditic because of its 
soulless fecundity: artificial insemination breeds monstrous mechani¬ 
cal parturition (Aen. II.20, 52, 237—38, 15). Spenser’s daemonic False 
Florimell is an android, as is the bust of Nefertiti, who shares her one 
bad eye with David Bowie. I spoke of Nefertiti’s advanced cerebral 
development and surgically truncated shoulders. We are still untan¬ 
gling the legal and moral problems caused by the invention of a new 
sex, the transsexual, produced by chemical and surgical manipulation 
of the body. The transsexual is a technological androgyne whom we are 
happy to call “she” out of the courtesy owed to all inspired makers of 
fiction. Close to transsexual is my favorite technological androgyne, 
Luciana Avedon, formerly the Princess Pignatelli, who radically re¬ 
sculpted face and body in her quest for beauty. Avedon’s first book 

A few times every century, a great natural beauty is born. I am not 

one of them. But what nature skipped, I supplied—so much so that 

sometimes I cannot remember what is real and what is fake. More 

important, neither can anyone else. 6 

The android is nether male nor female because it is a machine made of 
synthetic materials. In a wonderful commercial for Camay soap, the 
radiantly amiable Luciana Avedon turned her surgically altered face to 
the camera and addressed the viewer in a slow robot voice that stretched 
the phrase “coconut-enriched lather” to impossible hypnotic length. 

Shelley and Keats 

Transsexual Renee Richards shows the same odd combination of facial 
flat affect with elongated somnambulistic speech, a mechanical drone. 

Insofar as it is an android, therefore, Shelley’s Hermaphrodite cannot 
be regarded as a model for human life. It is one of the most solipsistic 
and emotionally dissociated beings in Romantic poetry. The Hermaph¬ 
rodite descends from Talus, Spenser’s “iron man” who does Artegall’s 
bidding. Talus is originally the servant of immortal Astraea, who rears 
Artegall in a cave looking forward to the cave of the Witch of Atlas. 
Shelley’s poem may be a reply to his wife’s Frankenstein, published two 
years earlier. The Hermaphrodite is his version of an experimental 
automaton, an Apollonian angel of emotional detachment and aes¬ 
thetic perfection. Some competition or debate was clearly going on 
between the Shelleys, for in her “Note on the Witch of Atlas Mary 
recalls urging her husband to “increase his popularity by adopting 
subjects that would more suit the popular taste than a poem conceived 
in the abstract and dreamy spirit of the Witch of Atlas,” which lacks 
“human interest and passion.” Shelley counters with six stanzas de¬ 
fending the “visionary” quality of his poetry. The merely human is not 
his concern. Romantics aim higher and lower. 

Shelley wrote The Witch of Atlas near Pisa in August 
1820. Three months later, Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont met 
Emilia Viviani, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the governor of Pisa, 
who was packing her off into an arranged marriage. Emilia was the 
inspiration for Epipsychidion, which Shelley began in January 1821. My 
theory is that from the moment he laid eyes on her, Shelley saw Emilia 
Viviani as a stunning materialization of the Hermaphrodite of his just- 
completed Witch of Atlas. In the first poem, the Hermaphrodite is seen 
through an artist-intermediary, the witch. In the second, the poet him¬ 
self confronts the Hermaphrodite. Epipsychidion , a major poem, is ill- 
understood. It attempts to convert Romanticism, a daemonic and 
chthonian mode, into the Apollonian. It combines androgyny with 
incest, already present in the first words of The Witch of Atlas, which 
describe the incestuous birth of twins. 

Epipsychidion has been completely misread as a polemical defense of 
adultery. The friendship between the Shelleys and Emilia Viviani was 
short but intense. Early commentators speculated endlessly on Mary 
Shelley’s attitude toward her husband’s intimacy with Emilia. In her 
roman a clef, Lodore (1835), Mary depicts the relation as platonic, 
which some think a whitewash. I feel, however, that the platonic con¬ 
nection is perfectly clear in Epipsychidion and that it is central to 


Light and Heat 

interpretation of the poem. Epipsychidion imagines a new kind of rela¬ 
tionship, eroticized but nongenital, where both partners are of wavering 

The first line of Epipsychidion addresses Emilia as “Spirit” and “Sis¬ 
ter,” the poem’s governing ideas. “Sister-spirit,” one of my favorite 
Romantic phrases, comes from cancelled stanzas. The poet longs to be 
Emilia’s twin, bom of one mother. Not only is Emilia to be Shelley’s 
sister, but his wife is to be her sister (45-48). In other words, Shelley 
makes his own wife his sister. For the Romantic poet, every relation 
contracts to family romance. Emilia’s letters to the Shelleys (theirs to 
her were apparently destroyed) show familial language was explicit 
among them. Emilia calls Shelley her brother and Mary her sister. 

Shelley’s longing for twinship is a desire for genetic identity within a 
heterosexual coupling. In the essay On Love , Shelley says something in 
us from birth “thirsts after its likeness.” As Emilia’s twin, the poet would 
be united with his likeness and escape human anxieties of separation 
and incompletion. Incest’s asociality is brilliantly embodied in his idea 
of twins whose incestuous relation precedes their social identities. In¬ 
cest is older than and prior to civilization. The poet leaps backward to 
the dawn of time. 

That Shelley may be thinking of incestuous intercourse between 
twins in the womb cannot be dismissed, since it occurs in The Faerie 
Queene. The twin giants Argante and Ollyphant, themselves the prod¬ 
uct of incest, mingle “in fleshly lust” before birth and emerge clasped in 
the “monstrous” act (III.vii.48). The Renaissance poet condemns what 
the Romantic poet celebrates. Prenatal sex is an old idea: Plutarch 
reports Isis and Osiris copulated in the womb. Mind, not body, is the 
issue in Epipsychidion. Shelley seeks a form of knowledge prior to the 
rational. He and his twin make a joint expedition to the origins of 
human consciousness. 

Shelley hails Emilia as “Seraph of Heaven,” “Veiled Glory,” “Spouse! 
Sister! Angel!” The seraphic imagery of Epipsychidion is unparalleled 
in English literature. Like Wordsworth, Shelley seraphicizes the be¬ 
loved woman, giving her a numinous glamour. Flooded by Apollonian 
light, Emilia is desexualized and dematerialized. She becomes a shim¬ 
mering presence of unfixed gender. In an omitted fragment, Shelley 
records different views of Emilia. Some call her a familiar, some a 
woman. Others “swear you’re a Hermaphrodite,” “that sweet marble 
monster of both sexes.” So Emilia’s gender and identity were a matter of 
public disupute in Pisa. A Roman Hermaphrodite statue also appears in 
Spenser’s cancelled “Hermaphrodite stanzas.” Did Shelley write his 

Shelley and Keats 

37 * 

own Hermaphrodite stanza in order to cancel it, in homage to Spenser? 
Or is a parallel aesthetic simply at work? Epipsychidion and The Faerie 
Queene follow Apollonian laws. The Hermaphrodite statue, with its 
anatomic blatancies, is too gravity-bound for the world of Apollonian 
radiance. The poetic energy 7 of Epipsychidion is in the weightless verti¬ 
cals of spiritual ascent. 

Shelley’s second draft for the preface contains a peculiar fantasy. 
Epipsychidion , it claims, was found in the personal effects of “a young 
Englishman, who died on his passage from Leghorn to the Levant.” He 
was accompanied by “a lady who might have been supposed to be his 
wife” and by “an effeminate looking youth,” who turned out to be a 
woman in disguise. He had bought a Greek island with a Saracenic 
castle, where he intended to “dedicate the remainder of his life to 
undisturbed intercourse with his companions.” Epipsychidion clearly 
emerged from a matrix of perverse fantasy. Shelley’s preface is Byronic: 
the Englishman is travelling to the east; the effeminate youth is like 
Byron’s pageboy Kaled, the transvestite woman who dies of grief at 
Lara’s death. Shelley seems to be imagining himself accompanied by 
his wife and by Emilia Viviani in boy’s clothing. Byron must have told 
his friends the Shelleys about his erotic adventures with a girl dressed as 
a boy. But Shelley revises Byron’s caprice into a menage a trois , as exotic 
as a Shakespearean acting company on tour. What is the wife’s relation 
to the girl-boy—tolerance or independent erotic interest? Because of 
Epipsychidion' s incest theme, it is possible that the lady “who might 
have been supposed to be his wife” might instead be the Englishman’s 
sister, with whom he is romantically involved. 

In another fragment Shelley tells Emilia: “If any should be curious to 
discover / Whether to you I am a friend or lover, / Let them read 
Shakespeare’s sonnets, taking thence / A whetstone for their dull intel¬ 
ligence.” This is a direct challenge to the reader. Shelley is saying we 
must guess whether Emilia is the Italian Dark Lady of the sonnets—or 
the beautiful boy. He doubts “the presumptuous pedagogues of Earth” 
can “tell the riddle offered here.” The riddle Emilia is like Goethe’s 
“enigma,” the transvestite Mignon. Androgynous Emilia looks back¬ 
ward to transvestite Rosalind, with her riddling circle magic, and for¬ 
ward to Balzac’s ambiguous Seraphita. Epipsychidion is an Apollonian 
cinema where Shelley invents image after image to answer the riddle of 
Emilia’s identity. 

Shelley declares Emilia the embodiment of a dazzling figure he has 
dreamed of since youth. This “veiled Divinity” recalls Spenser’s veiled 
hermaphrodite Venus. Like Coleridge’s Christabel , Epipsychidion is a 


Light and Heat 

sexual apocalyse in which the hermaphrodite god is seen face to face. 
Critics agree that Shelley’s long-sought image is the “epipsyche” of the 
title, a word translated as “a soul within the soul.” Carlos Baker speaks 
of Shelley’s “psyche-epipsyche strategy”: “The mind (psyche) imagi¬ 
natively creates or envisions what it does not have (epipsyche), and then 
seeks to possess epipsyche, to move towards it as a goal.” 7 This excellent 
formulation would be accurate about Blake but not about Shelley. The 
femininity of Shelley’s epipsyche is not what his psyche does not have, 
since he is already half-feminine—shown by the wealth of details in 
Epipsychidion stressing his passivity. The epipsyche may be an aspect of 
self projected and pursued. But it is not a repressed feminine compo¬ 
nent, since in Romanticism after Blake, femininity is never repressed. If 
the Romantics repress anything, it is masculinity. I revise Baker’s state¬ 
ment: Shelley’s feminine psyche pursues what it does not have—mas¬ 
culinity, which it embodies in a female epipsyche. Pursuer and pursued 
are hermaphrodites. 

Shelley enjoyed subordination to female power. He told Elizabeth 
Hitchener, “You are as my better genius.” A letter to his future wife 
declares: “Your thoughts alone can waken mine to energy. . . . My un¬ 
derstanding becomes undisciplined without you.” This persona of ritual 
dependency is a characteristic Romantic mask. John Stuart Mill simi¬ 
larly idolized Harriet Taylor, whom he calls a genius and his intellectual 
superior, source of those achievements for which the world mistakenly 
honors him alone. Gertrude Himmelfarb, among others, shows this to 
be a patent falsification. 8 However, Mill’s imagining Harriet as superior 
may genuinely have energized him. Creativity flows from an archaic 
repositioning of sexual personae. In some way, Harriet as Diotima or 
dominatrix stilled guilt. Oddly, the one person Mill compares Harriet to 
in his autobiography is Shelley himself—only to find Shelley wanting. 
Harriet resembled Shelley “in thought and intellect” and everything 
else, but Shelley “was but a child compared with what she ultimately 
became.” 9 Alas, the unremarkable Harriet cannot survive so cruel a 

Shelley wears his persona of elected passivity throughout Epipsychi¬ 
dion He is “a dizzy moth” seeking “a radiant death” in the flame of his 
angelic dream-image. The poem’s midsection chronicles his erotic his¬ 
tory, as he sought the image “in many mortal forms.” The three major 
women in his life, Claire, Mary, and Emilia, become comet, moon, and 
sun, exerting their power upon him, “this passive Earth.” Shelley is 
making an astrological and therefore pagan revision of Dante’s tutelage 

Shelley and Keats 


by the Madonna, St. Lucy, and Beatrice. He repeats in four different 
ways Coleridge’s metaphor of the poet as feminine sea played upon by 
larger forces. Shelley’s first encounter with Emilia combines Dante and 
Spenser: “Into the obscure Forest” came his “Vision,” who “flashed 
from her motion splendour like the Mom’s.” Dante’s pilgrim meets 
Spenser’s Belphoebe, the glittering Apollonian huntress. Emilia, an 
“Incarnation of the Sun,” is “penetrating me with living light.” The poet 
is “a hunted deer,” pierced by her raylike solar arrows. (Earlier, imagi¬ 
nation shoots “many a sun-like arrow”.) So Shelley is the female deer 
wounded by Belphoebe at her entrance into The Faerie Queene. A few 
months later, in Adonais, he again describes himself as a “deer struck by 
the hunter’s dart.” Emilia is penetrator, Shelley penetrated. 

Sometimes Emilia is a gentle sister or “poor captive bird,” her real- 
life phrase for herself (her father had put her in a convent for her 
schooling). At other times she is imperiously Amazonian: “Thou Won¬ 
der, and thou Beauty, and thou Terror!” Echoing the Song of Songs 
(6:4), Shelley gives woman a masculine militancy. In a poem on Leo¬ 
nardo’s Medusa he says, “Its horror and its beauty are divine.” The 
painting, with its “Gorgonian eyes,” has “the tempestuous loveliness of 
terror.” Medusa is Apollonian Emilia’s chthonian twin. Beauty and 
terror together in a person of either sex are prima facie hermaphroditic. 
We see them in Coleridge’s longhaired poet, who makes people cry 
“Beware! Beware!” 

In Epipsychidion, therefore, a passive poet glorifies a woman who is 
alternately an incestuous twin, a genderless spirit, and an Amazon. The 
third and final section of the poem prophesies their future relationship. 
The poet’s summons to Emilia is usually dismissed as a sentimental 
elopement fantasy. But Emilia will be “a bride” to the poet’s spirit and 
“a vestal sister” to his body. Vestal means virgin: this is a no-sex mar¬ 
riage. Shelley imagines their voyage to an idyllic Greek island with 
fountains and streams “as clear as elemental diamond,” under “the roof 
of blue Ionian weather.” I suspect the wording and decor influenced 
Baudelaire’s gorgeous “Invitation to the Voyage,” with its dreamy ap¬ 
peal to the Romantic sister-spirit. 

Shelley’s Greek imagery establishes his theme of eroticized chastity 
in exclusively formal terms. Bloom strongly resists scholars’ ascription 
of Platonism to Shelley’s poetry. Platonism is of little use in reading 
poetry; its historical meanings are too broad. However, I substitute the 
term Apollonian for Shelley’s idealizations. He is a Greek visionary of 
the visible world, with its eye-dominated Apollonian radiance. Homer’s 


Light and Heat 

white-armed Nausikaa, Sappho’s maidens, and the Athenian Kritios 
Boy are in the high Greek style of simplicity, clarity, purity, and beauty. 
Shelley’s purity would be no less Greek were his imaginary island off 
Scotland. He is having “an antenatal dream”: the island’s “calm cir¬ 
cumference of bliss” is life in the womb, where the incestuous twins 
unite. Epipsychidion’s voyage is into not the future but the past. 

Shelley and his sister-spirit finally reach an ancient cavern filled with 
“the moonlight of the expired night.” There they come together: 

Our breath shall intermix, our bosoms bound, 

And our veins beat together; and our lips 
With other eloquence than words, eclipse 
The soul that burns between them, and the wells 
Which boil under our being’s inmost cells, 

The fountains of our deepest life, shall be 
Confused in Passion’s golden purity 

The passage continues to a blazing height, from which the poet falls 
back abruptly. Vision fails him, because the union, the most radical 
seraphicization in poetiy, veers in an unexpected direction. Social per¬ 
sonae recede. Shelley the dramatic character falls silent, while Shelley 
the choral commentator continues as long as he can. Words cease, since 
prenatal incest precedes culture. 

Shelley describes his union with Emilia in multiple metaphors drawn 
from the Hermaphrodite myths in Plato, Ovid, and Milton. The inter¬ 
mixture of breaths and binding of bosoms have led many scholars to 
misread the poem as a defense of free love. Kissing and embracing 
prove no genital connection, in view of Emilia Viviani’s letters speaking 
of her ardent desire to kiss and embrace Mary Shelley. Something 
physical is going on in Epipsychidion , but it is not normal sexual inter¬ 
course. The boiling wells, fountains, and springs refer to Ovid’s forest 
pool of the nymph Salmacis, who fuses with the youth Hermaphroditus. 
In Shelley’s version, Emilia’s body disappears into his. Gender is eradi¬ 
cated and biology defied. Life begins again. Shelley and Emilia are to 
be reborn as one person. Epipsychidion leads to the womb, the body- 
warmed sac of waters. The poem boils like an alembic on the Delphic 
tripod. Its cavern is the Witch of Atlas’ birth chamber of “enwombed 
rocks.” The Witch of Atlas begins where Epipsychidion ends. Shelley’s 
two Hermaphrodite poems make a single continuous movement. Like 
Coleridge’s pornographic Christabel , Epipsychidion is a superheated 
psychoalchemic experiment, releasing and rebonding sexual energy. In 
Epipsychidion , an Apollonian poem with a chthonian climax, orgasmic 

Shelley and Keats 


sexuality is vanquished and transcended. Body is consumed in the 
flames of imagination, which light and heat the poem. 

But Epipsychidion implodes. The search for a new identity based on 
gender-free eroticism ends in the extinction of all identity. The unity of 
incestuous twinship collapses into nondifferentiation. Incest restores 
primeval chaos. Shelley sinks into dispiriting density, like the swamp 
mud of the Great Mother. The poem is reclaimed by the chthonian. 
Epipsychidion attempts the impossible task of reconciling regression to 
the womb with Apollonian seraphicization, a burning away and ascent 
of the gender-limited body. But the Apollonian angel is by definition 
anti-chthonian, a flight from the mother-ruled labyrinth of sex, body, 
and nature. At the moment the poet thinks himself victorious over 
matter, the earth exerts her malign gravitation and plummets him 
downward to her embrace. Shelley awakened her power early in the 
poem when he opened himself to the womb-state: “Would we two had 
been twins of the same mother!” Summoned, the archaic mother ap¬ 

Shelley’s parting from Emilia Viviani was not cordial, though there 
seems to have been no one provoking incident. Newman Ivey White 
describes it as a “revulsion” from her, similar to “several other sudden 
revulsions” in Shelley’s history. 10 The poet ended by suppressing Epi¬ 
psychidion. In a letter just before his death the next year, Shelley said of 
his estrangement from Emilia: “I think one is always in love with 
something or other; the error . . . consists in seeking in a mortal image 
the likeness of what is perhaps eternal.” This is the disease of western 
love. Shelley’s letter describes psychological heliotropism, my term for 
susceptibility to the glamour of charismatic personality. The person is 
intensely visualized: in Epipsychidion, Shelley cries, “See where she 
stands!” The western cinematic eye is directed, fixed, inflamed. But the 
person invested with so much hieratic energy is coldly discarded when 
he or she proves humanly frail. The idealizing lover surrenders himself 
to dramatic illusion, the power of persona. I think Shelley’s disillusion¬ 
ment came when Emilia, then nineteen years old and at the very 
borderline of adolescent bloom (“A Metaphor of Spring and Youth and 
Morning; / A Vision like incarnate April”), suddenly crossed over and 
looked like a woman instead of an androgyne. The first time I read 
Epipsychidion , I knew what Emilia Viviani looked like: Hadrian’s Anti- 
nous. The poem’s brilliant glamour could only have been inspired by a 
person of extraordinary androgynous beauty. Thus it was no surprise 
when I learned Emilia had “faultlessly regular Greek features.” 

Shelley’s final preface to Epipsychidion compares it, without explana- 

Light and Heat 


tion, to Dante’s Vita Nuova. Bloom rejects this: Shelley’s parallel is 
“hardly justified” and “does not help us to comprehend anything of 
value in the poem.” 11 But the allusion to Dante is exactly right: Epi- 
psychidion is Shelley’s Vita Nuova. I argued that Dante’s Beatrice was a 
narcissistic personality, a girl-boy to whom the obsessed poet ritually 
subjected himself. Only Knight seems also to have noticed Beatrice’s 
“youthful presexual perfection.” 12 Glancing over the fragments and 
drafts connected with Epipsychidion , we see how easily Shelley’s mind 
moved from the Roman Hermaphrodite statue to a transvestite girl as 
beautiful boy to the Vita Nuova , with its charismatic adolescent Be¬ 
atrice. Epipsychidion and the Vita Nuova are classic texts of western 
erotic perversity, which gives enormous hierarchic stature to self-